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Culinary incubators: Where food businesses go to grow

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Greens & Gills founders Eric Roth and David Ellis (Photo: Greens & Gills)

In the basement of The Plant, a 94,000-square-foot former meat-processing facility in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, a company called Greens & Gills is raising fish and microgreens in the same “aquaponic” ecosystem. Those greens, including basil, kale and arugula, end up on the shelves at local supermarkets, and on the plates of some of the city’s hottest Michelin-starred restaurants, like Everest and El Ideas.

Greens & Gills is just one of a growing number of innovative food startups that are taking advantage of food/culinary incubators like The Plant, a self-sustaining, zero-waste vertical farm with a business incubator program designed to propel startup food businesses like Greens & Gills into viable ventures.

Meanwhile, every month in California, Kitchener Oakland invites locals to a free pop-up market featuring the latest food innovations from its roster of start-up businesses such as The Living Apothecary’s cold-pressed juices or Wooden Spoon’s jarred rillettes. The Kitchener is part shared kitchen, part food incubator. Participants are able to perfect recipes in the kitchen, and founder Sophia Chang organizes roundtable discussions and offers business owners real-world experience in marketing their products to local consumers.

All businesses need to start somewhere, and often, those growing a business from the ground up rely on incubators like The Plant and the Kitchener to provide help with management and marketing. A number of food business-related incubators, deemed food incubators, have opened with the goal of helping food businesses succeed.

Food incubators come in various forms. While some simply offer a shared kitchen space for rent, supplying business owners with restaurant-grade kitchen equipment that otherwise may be costly to procure, others go all-in with assistance for everything from packaging to marketing. According to estimates from the Specialty Food Association, there are about 150 shared kitchen spaces in the U.S., up 40% from five years ago. Though the number of food incubators is hard to pinpoint, the president of the National Business Incubation Association told AZ Central that the growth of food incubators has been spurred by increased consumer interest in locally sourced, natural foods. Both incubators and shared kitchens play an important role in speeding up the process of food innovation, allowing more and more companies to bring their creations to market.

And according to research for Datassential’s recent Creative Concepts TrendSpotting Report on food incubators, consumers are eager to try many of the products most associated with food incubators: 67% of people are interested in trying premium spice blends, and 58% are interested in trying hydroponic herbs and vegetables, for instance.

Shared kitchen spaces

Some shared kitchen spaces don’t necessarily offer business incubation programs, but many culinary incubators do offer a shared kitchen space for businesses to rent, allowing entrepreneurs to bypass the high cost of investing in commercial kitchen equipment.

Detroit Kitchen Connect, or DKC, helps businesses grow by offering owners an affordable shared kitchen space. Co-founders Devita Davison and Jess Daniels started the program when they noticed that many budding business owners didn’t have a place to make their products. Now there are two DKC kitchens available for rent. Both were created out of underutilized licensed kitchens in Detroit, and now more than a dozen food and beverage companies are benefiting.

April M. Anderson, owner of Good Cakes and Bakes, was able to buy a retail space in Detroit after using DKC as a space to expand and fine-tune her baked goods. Anderson still uses DKC’s space regularly to bake her organic, locally-sourced cupcakes, cheesecakes and cookies. And shared kitchen spaces are not just for startup food businesses either. Communal spaces allow established companies to further expand product lines, with some using these facilities as dedicated test kitchens.

Business growth programs

At La Cocina in San Francisco, a shared kitchen and incubator program, the goal is to help women from immigrant communities realize their dreams of owning a restaurant or food business. La Cocina is a targeted incubator, looking for entrepreneurs that are low-income and business ready. The business also cannot have more than five employees.

After acceptance into the program, owners are able to use the commercial kitchen to perfect products and recipes and are also given assistance with product development, business planning, and marketing.

More than 40 women have been in the program since its launch in 2005, and 15 have graduated to launching their own businesses.

Guisell Osorio is one of those successful graduates. Osorio emigrated from Chile and had a hobby of baking alfajores (sweet biscuit cookies with a dulce de leche filling) for friends and family. Osorio was La Cocina’s first applicant and first graduate. With the incubator’s help, Osorio’s alfajores can be found at select Whole Foods stores, and they also appear at her full-service South American restaurant, Sabores del Sur in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Organizations like La Cocina and similarly-run Spice Kitchen in Salt Lake City, Utah, are not only changing the landscape of restaurants, but also the landscape of their respective communities. Spice Kitchen focuses on helping refugee women transform their ethnic cooking skills into successful, unique businesses. Take Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba for example – the Africa-born immigrant is one of Spice Kitchen’s most successful entrepreneurs. Food incubators can definitely be a source of the “next big thing” in food, and perhaps Tshilombo-Lokemba’s “Mama Africa” pili-pili sauce will follow in the footsteps of sriracha and other on-trend ethnic spicy sauces.

Artisan, gourmet products

Because those utilizing food incubators are just starting in the market, you’ll often find a wide variety of new, innovative businesses or products aimed at nascent markets, such as insect-based foods, unusual new fermented products, food for specific diets, or lesser-known ethnic foods.

Artisan specialty products are often showcased at a local farmer’s market, a great place to introduce new products — Datassential research shows that 60% of consumers specifically seek out new products at farmer’s markets. With the help of food incubators, however, the hope is for products to make the jump from farmer’s markets to the shelves of a retailer.

In our food incubators issue of Creative Concepts, we talked with Natalie Shmulik, a manager/consultant at food incubator Now We’re Cookin’ in Evanston, Ill. Some of the food companies she’s worked with include Truli Julie, a company with a unique line of savory biscotti, and a company creating shelf-stable, all-natural vegetable purees.

As for the type of businesses that tend to succeed in incubator programs, Shmulik said, “They’re not necessarily those with the most innovative idea, but rather those who commit fully to their business and overall brand.”

And of course, it isn’t just packaged foods that are being developed at food incubators; it’s also full-fledged restaurants and food trucks. Holdfast Dining, a modern small-plate pop-up, got its start at KitchenCru in Portland, Ore. Holdfast’s nine-course meals at the chef’s counter were one of the hottest tickets in town and now, Holdfast has its own home in the front room of Fausse Piste winery in southeast Portland.

No matter what the business idea is, there’s a reason even brands such as Chobani have opened a culinary incubation program — incubators are where you’ll find the next generation of food trends and products.

Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase the Creative Concepts: Food Incubators TrendSpotting Report mentioned in this article, contact Webster at 312-655-0596 or email [email protected]


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