Change Mak­ers: A Recipe for Suc­cess

Martha Stewart Living - - Contents - TEXT BY SARAH ENGLER

At four culi­nary­busi­ness in­cu­ba­tors, de­li­cious ideas are al­ways cook­ing.

Be­hind ev­ery in­die food prod­uct or new restau­rant, there’s a story of un­wa­ver­ing pas­sion, hard work, and fi­nan­cial hus­tle. Now, a grow­ing num­ber of culi­nary busi­ness in­cu­ba­tors are mak­ing it eas­ier for se­ri­ous foodies to turn their dreams into de­li­cious re­al­i­ties.

SAY YOU’VE BEEN TOLD time and again that your sig­na­ture brownie or mari­nara sauce is so amaz­ing, you could sell it. Or you fan­ta­size about open­ing a wine bar or taco joint that you know will do gang­busters in your neigh­bor­hood. How to be­gin? Build­ing a busi­ness takes more than en­thu­si­asm, and ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Statist ics, pri­vate ven­tures have only about a 50-50 shot of sur­viv­ing their first four years. But across the coun­try, smart food in­cu­ba­tors are break­ing down bar­ri­ers for culi­nary start-ups: They of­fer low-cost com­mer­cial kitchen spa­ces; help with prod­uct devel­op­ment, mar­ket­ing, and financials; and pro­vide in­valu­able men­tor­ing. Here are four that are st ir­ring things up.

1Union Kitchen WASH­ING­TON, D.C. A se­ri­ously pop­u­lar choco­late-chip cookie started this out­fit. In 2012, Union Kitchen’s CEO and co­founder, Cullen Gilchrist, opened a cof­fee shop called Blind Dog Cafe with friends. To meet de­mand for the con­fect ion baked by his sis­ter, Greer, he needed a big­ger kitchen. The one he found, in D.C.’s un­der­de­vel­oped Ivy City neigh­bor­hood, was mas­sive, so he be­gan shar­ing it with ac­quain­tances in the food in­dust ry, and later added a dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter and opened a cou­ple of small gro­ceries across the city to test and sell the foods and drinks made there. To­day, the ac­cel­er­a­tor (known as such be­cause it has eq­uity in its part­ners, ver­sus just get­ting them off the ground) helps en­trepreneurs de­velop, launch, and sell their prod­ucts in just 8 to 12 weeks.

Gilchrist and his crew then lever­age their re­la­tion­ships with re­gional and na­tional re­tail­ers (in­clud­ing Whole Foods) and dist rib­u­tors to help busi­nesses scale and ex­pand. Over the past six years, the hub has placed more than a thou­sand new items on shelves. “Mem­bers are putting their ev­ery­thing—pas­sion, time, fo­cus, and money—into build­ing some­thing they be­lieve be­longs in our world,” he says. “It’s very sat­is­fy­ing to be around peo­ple like that.” unionkitchendc.com.

2La Cocina SAN FRAN­CISCO Lo­cated in the Mis­sion District, this in­cu­ba­tor helps low-in­come women, im­mi­grants, and peo­ple of color bring their bril­liant con­cepts to mar­ket. “We’ve had en­trepreneurs from 19 coun­tries go through the pro­gram, and I’m con­tin­u­ally sur­prised by the di­ver­sity of foods com­ing out of our kitchen,” says deputy di­rec­tor Leti­cia Landa, re­fer­ring to del­i­ca­cies like the Nepalese mo­mos and Viet­namese grass-fed-beef pho pro­duced on site. La Cocina spends six months with each mem­ber, pro­vid­ing a solid foun­da­tion in prod­uct devel­op­ment, mar­ket­ing, and the fi­nan­cial and op­er­a­tional lo­gis­tics of run­ning a busi­ness (say, how to cost and scale recipes, set up a farm­ers’-mar­ket booth, or stream­line pro­duc­tion to save time and money), as well as af­ford­able com­mer­cial kitchen space. Since 2005, alumni have launched 51 ven­tures and opened 30 cafés, food kiosks, and ac­claimed restau­rants (of spe­cial note: Nyum Bai, a lo­cal Cam­bo­dian hot spot from chef Nite Yun; and Reem’s Cal­i­for­nia and Dyafa, both from 2018 James Beard Award semi­fi­nal­ist Reem As­sil). “These busi­nesses, and their own­ers’ be­ing rec­og­nized as lead­ers in the food in­dus­try, ex­pand op­por­tu­ni­ties for other im­mi­grant women and women of color,” Landa says, ad­ding that the en­ter­prises have cre­ated 150 new jobs in the Bay Area. la­coci­nasf.org.

3Gal­ley Group PITTS­BURGH While serv­ing in the navy in 2014, Tyler Ben­son and Ben Man­tica spent stretches of time in South­east Asia, where they mar­veled at the re­gion’s street mar­kets. “They were in­cred­i­bly ac­tive and had great food op­tions in a re­ally ca­sual en­vi­ron­ment,” says Ben­son. “Our goal was to repli­cate the qual­ity and style of ser­vice in the States.” A year later, they moved to Man­tica’s home­town of Pitts­burgh and opened Smallman Gal­ley. The spa­cious food hall houses four restau­rants with two com­mu­nal bars (one cof­fee, one cock­tail) that switch out ev­ery 18 months or so. Fully equipped kitchens and seat­ing for 200 al­low the ro­tat­ing chefs and restau­ra­teurs to build their menus, and their fol­low­ings, with­out pay­ing the stag­ger­ing start-up funds re­quired for a stand-alone busi­ness. Mem­bers, who are cho­sen based on an online ap­pli­ca­tion and pitches to a panel of lo­cal food writ­ers and in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als, pay be­tween $ 5,000 and $10,000 for la­bor, food, and small wares. Gal­ley Group pro­vides front-of-house man­agers, bussers, dish­wash­ers, and bar staff, along with sup­port and ad­vice from its net­work of ex­perts. And sales go straight into mem­bers’ ac­counts. The pair has teamed up with 19 chefs in to­tal, and opened a sec­ond Pitts­burgh lo­ca­tion, Fed­eral Gal­ley, in 2017, as well as two more in Cleve­land and Detroit. gal­ley­grp.com.

4Hot Bread Kitchen’s In­cu­ba­tor NEW YORK CITY This or­ga­ni­za­tion’s par­ent com­pany, Hot Bread Kitchen, started 11 years ago in the Brooklyn kitchen of founder Jes­samyn Ro­driguez. With a decade of so­cial jus­tice and pub­lic-pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence un­der her belt, Ro­driguez had a bold idea: a com­mer­cial bak­ery that dou­bles as a bread-bak­ing col­lec­tive. To­day, in a bustling East Har­lem mar­ket, women from all over the world take part in its culi­nary-train­ing pro­gram, learn­ing clas­sic skills—along with ré­sumé writ­ing and kitchen math and sci­ence— be­fore nab­bing fair-wage jobs with ben­e­fits. Op­er­at­ing costs are funded in part by sales of the 75 va­ri­eties of ar­ti­san breads they make. In 2011, the group launched the in­cu­ba­tor, which has helped cat­a­pult some 215 par­tic­i­pants—from jam mak­ers to cater­ers—to suc­cess. For a monthly fee (sub­si­dized rates are avail­able), mem­bers get ac­cess to a shared com­mer­cial kitchen, ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, one-on-one coach­ing, and busi­ness re­fer­rals (in­tro­duc­tions to cater­ing com­pa­nies, for ex­am­ple). The ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Shaolee Sen, has loved watch­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween mem­bers, 94 per­cent of whom are women or peo­ple of color. “It can be lonely to build a busi­ness; you’re work­ing hard to suc­ceed and wear­ing so many dif­fer­ent hats,” she says. “Hav­ing sup­port while you’re cook­ing and run­ning a hun­dred miles per hour is in­spir­ing.” hot­bread­kitchen.org/in­cu­bates.

Mem­bers of Union Kitchen, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., de­velop their goods in a 17,000- square-foot com­mer­cial kitchen. “No ad­vice is as valu­able as learn­ing from ac­tion,” says co­founder Cullen Gilchrist.

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