Incubators nurture culinary startups

Home kitchens have always been the birthplace of food entrepreneurs, from home cooks looking to share beloved old family recipes with the world to foodies sure they’ve invented the next hot taste sensation. But in many states, the home kitchen may also be the place where the idea stalls – state laws regulating or banning home-based cottage food businesses can end a culinary startup before it begins.

That’s where food incubators come in.

The number of US culinary incubators soared 50% to more than 200 between August 2013 and March 2016, according to a report earlier this year from Econsult Solutions. Incubators can be found in 39 US states, mostly in cities, and 61% are for-profit operations.

Brooklyn FoodWorks is one of those for-profit incubators. Launched in February with backing from the New York City Economic Development Council and the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, the 10,000-square-foot space in Brooklyn’s Pfizer building boasts 11 kitchens plus a private space where member companies can hold classes, promotional dinners, food photo shoots and other events.

 

How the food incubator works

The startups that have become part of the Brooklyn FoodWorks pay a monthly fee based on the amount of time they use the space, ranging from $300 for 10 hours to $2,000 for 80 hours. The biggest benefit they receive is the kitchen space itself, said Managing Director Edie Feinstein.

“Startup food companies are coming from home kitchens where they can’t actually legally make anything for sale. They need a kitchen space to produce out of and it’s really expensive to build out their own kitchens, and finding somewhere they can rent for a reasonable price is hard too. Just having affordable kitchen space is a pretty amazing opportunity,” she said.

The space also comes with plenty of services including refrigerator, freezer and dry goods storage space, pest control, maintenance, utilities, upkeep and trash removal. “And we also do their dishes for them,” Feinstein said.

The incubator also offers time with about 40 volunteer mentors who advise on all aspects of starting and growing a business, from business plans, law and finance to food photography, marketing and social media.

To get a space in the incubator, startups need to show they’re serious by amassing some paperwork including articles of incorporation, a sales tax certificate and the other licenses and insurances they need to operate, Feinstein said. The entrepreneurs are also encouraged to bring a business plan, but mentors can help with that once the startup is accepted.

Applicants fill out online applications, have in-person interviews and if all goes well they sign a contract, tour the kitchen and get cooking.

“It can all happen very quickly,” Feinstein said.

A leg-up for low-income food entrepreneurs

A $1.3 million grant from the New York City Economic Development Corp. launched a scholarship program aimed at giving low-income food entrepreneurs a leg up, Feinstein said. Part of the scholarship money was earmarked for would-be entrepreneurs who live in the city’s public housing or have federally funded housing vouchers under the Section 8 program.

“In addition, we do a ton of classes and workshops and events that also cover a lot of similar topics, many times those are open to the public and led by mentors or other community partners,” Feinstein said.

Participating in the culinary incubator also offers a sense of community.

“They’re joining a community of other like-minded entrepreneurs who are going through the same struggles and situations they are. It’s nice to learn from each other and help each other instead of trying to build their businesses on an island.”

Photo/Brooklyn FoodWorks

The incubator had 84 companies at last count from many areas of food production, from packaged foods and baked goods to a meal-delivery service called Barley & Oats that delivers nutritionally complete meals and snacks for pregnant women and lactating moms.   The incubator will likely consider itself full-up when it hits somewhere between 100 and 120, depending on how much time each needs to use the facility, Feinstein said.

Some of the companies displayed their creations at the Summer Fancy Food Show in June, including Bad Seed Chili Granola, a spicy version of the traditional cereal that caught a break when it caught the attention of Whole Foods Market.

That deal could eventually mean Bad Seed will grow too big for the incubator and need to expand into its own space. Brooklyn FoodWorks hasn’t set hard-and-fast criteria to gauge when it’s time for one of its member companies to move on, Feinstein said.

“It’s something that’s really up to the business at this point. It’s something will feel obvious when it’s necessary because it’s not cost effective anymore or there are too many employees or they need more flexibility with the booking,” she said.

The incubator’s location in the Pfizer building puts it in the midst of a food hub, she said, and that means there’s always the possibility that graduates could stay close by moving to bigger permanent digs in the building.

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