Sharing the Love of Food ... and the Space and Cost

When Guisell Osorio immigrated to San Francisco from Chile she dreamed of opening her own restaurant. Osorio knew how to cook, but “I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant.”

So Osorio became a member of La Cocina, a kitchen incubator in San Francisco’s Mission District. In nine years at La Cocina, Osorio developed a successful catering business and marketed her alfajores, delicious Chilean cookies, at Whole Foods. A food website review of Osorio’s cookies described alfajores as “the stuff that dreams are made of — buttery, delicate and crumbly shortbread cookies filled with a rich layer of dulce de leche and sprinkled with powdered sugar.”

A year ago, Osorio went out on her own, opening Sabores del Sur, a 62-seat restaurant in Walnut Creek, a San Francisco suburb. Sabores del Sur means Flavors of the South in Spanish.

“Basically I make all kinds of South American cuisine,” Osorio said. “I try to do what they do at home, just like my grandmother did. None of this fusion stuff for me.”

Osorio said she has created jobs for 11 workers at her restaurant, catering and cookie businesses.

“I’m a busy girl, yes,” she joked. “It’s been very good.”

La Cocina was a perfect fit for Osorio as the San Francisco incubator focuses on serving women, minority and immigrant food entrepreneurs, giving them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the food business.

The San Francisco program is part of an incubator movement built around shared commercial kitchens where aspiring food entrepreneurs learn how to make it in the high-risk, notoriously fickle food business.

In many places, state and local laws impose restrictions that make it difficult to impossible for food entrepreneurs to go into business. That’s where culinary incubators come in.

“The need for a kitchen incubator stems from the fact that in many places it is illegal to run a food business out of a home kitchen,” says the website incubatorkitchen.com. “In many jurisdictions food products may only be prepared for wholesale or retail in a commercial kitchen that is licensed by the proper local or state regulatory agencies.”

Diversity is a hallmark of the culinary incubator movement. Some programs simply rent space to their members, others offer teachers and classes, some provide assistance with marketing and financing and some operate retail stores where members can sell their products. Many incubators are for-profit businesses; many others are not-for-profits. Some do not fit neatly into either category.

In a 2013 report, Econsult Solutions of Philadelphia recommended that incubators adopt a holistic approach to helping food entrepreneurs create new businesses. The company has consulted with a number of incubator programs.

“One of the common challenges is that entrepreneurs are passionate about cooking, but ill-prepared for business,” the report said. “Additionally, many entrepreneurs lack the financial resources to invest in scaling their business. For this reason, incubators should invest heavily in small business support services, including business technical assistance, help with recipe scaling, cost-savings through bulk purchasing of ingredients, assistance with distribution, and assistance with obtaining sales venues.”

Incubatorkitchen.com reports there are more than 135 incubators around the country. Culinary incubators, taking off out of the local food movement, are growing rapidly.

Incubator programs go by many different names, usually some variation of the words culinary, kitchen or food in combination with the word incubator. What the incubators have in common is the goal of launching successful food businesses.

“We want to make sure that anyone who has a food business will be able to access our programs and services and be able to use the space at a rate that’s affordable to them,” said Deborah Haust, who will manage a culinary incubator called City Seeds scheduled to open next year in Baltimore, and is director of Strategic Partnerships at American Communities Trust.

American Communities Trust (ACT) of Baltimore is developing major projects featuring culinary incubators in Baltimore and Louisville, Ky. The $17-million Baltimore Food Hub will occupy a 3.5-acre site near Johns Hopkins University, and the West Louisville Food Port is a $30-million project planned for a 24-acre site being developed by Seed Capital KY with assistance from ACT.

“The goal is to fill in gaps within Baltimore’s food system,” said Greg Heller, CEO of ACT. “The big need that we’ve identified is facilities and resources for small- and medium-scale food entrepreneurs, so the Baltimore Food Hub campus is going to include a number of facilities, storage, packing equipment, and other equipment, facilities and spaces that will help small entrepreneurs to be competitive and to scale their businesses.”

Humanim, a Baltimore not-for-profit is contracting with ACT to run the City Seeds program.

Haust said the facility will produce edibles for Johns Hopkins and Goucher College, hiring graduates of culinary training programs like Catalyst Kitchens. Based in Seattle, Catalyst Kitchens partners with programs around the country to train workers for culinary jobs.

“The goal really is to hire them, remove barriers to employment, provide them with on the job training and provide a line of food products,” Haust said.

In Washington, D.C., Union Kitchen operates a 7,300-square-foot for-profit incubator in a warehouse. The company, started by two partners who owned a Washington coffee shop, is adding a 22,000-square-foot facility at another location and a 1,000-square-foot urban grocery near Capitol Hill.

“At the end of the day our goal is to grow the business and help other people get into the food business,” said Cullen Gilchrist, co-owner of Union Kitchen.

Members typically pay a modest hourly rental to use commercial kitchens at culinary incubators. FEED Kitchens, an acronym for Food Enterprise & Economic Development, operates four commercial kitchens in a 5,400-square-foot building on the north side of Madison, Wis. Members pay from $15 to $25 an hour depending on how many hours a week they use the kitchens.

“We have two types of users, commercial and casual,’ said Adam Haen, manager of FEED Kitchens. “Commercial is going to be anyone who needs to be licensed by the city or state and is going to sell to the general public. Casual is anyone doing stuff for themselves, family or friends or nonprofits doing good works.”

Haen said a local couple used the kitchen to bake 90 pies they served to guests at their wedding, and a Madison nonprofit prepares Thanksgiving dinners for the poor and homeless. It plans to bake 2,500 pumpkin pies this year. In addition, Madison-Area Urban Ministry operates a program at the facility that teaches baking to ex-convicts and has placed several in jobs at bakeries.

Back in San Francisco, La Cocina occupies a 4,400- square-foot facility built in 2005 at a cost of $1.4 million donated by an anonymous donor. It is a non-for-profit that gets about 60 percent of its revenue from food products sold on its website and the rest from grants and donations.

The program typically has about 40 members who pay from $11 to $28 an hour to use the kitchen facilities, said Michelle Fernandez, development and communications associate at La Cocina. She said 97 percent are women, most are immigrants and all are low-income.

“It’s a mix of packaged food producers and what we call prepared foods they sell to Whole Foods, farmers markets, food truck gatherings and catering,” Fernandez said. “Many times some of these women will open a restaurant after they’ve been here a couple of years. I think we have nine brick and mortar locations.”

La Cocina operates a store that sells gift boxes packed with sweet and salty snacks — including alfajores — online.

Just as there are many varieties of culinary incubators, so are there many reasons for becoming a member. Some, like Guisell Osorio, are beginners trying to make their way into the food business.

Others are pros seeking the help they need to change their business models — like Meredith Tomason, who was a pastry chef in New York before she moved to Washington with the goal of owning a bakery. Union Kitchen was ideal for Tomason.

“I left New York with the sole intention of starting a bakery in D.C., so I was looking for a place to work out of,” she said. “I had everything I needed set up.

“The idea of a kitchen incubator was really exciting to me because it was me being around like-minded people, bouncing ideas off those people, kind of collaborating on things. It was a very good place for me to set my feet down when I first got here.”

Tomason now owns Raresweets, a Washington bakery that employs 10 people. She said her business is based on making rare sweets, using recipes she has collected over the years. Tomason also sells her treats to a number of local cafes and coffee shops.

Most culinary incubators serve aspiring entrepreneurs who want to cook food, but some reach out to techies who have no interest in slaving over a hot stove. Food Lofts in South Boston, part of the Harvard Common Press, runs a program for tech entrepreneurs who want to start food-related businesses.

“We don’t have a kitchen,” said Lauren Alba, Food Loft managing director. “We’re focused on food technology and the food tech community.”

Food tech businesses run by Food Loft’s members include a cheese website, food event planning and a website linking chefs and diners.

Food Loft’s website describes it as “the first-ever co-working space dedicated to food and food tech startups. We’re attracting bright, passionate entrepreneurs whose business ideas improve the current food landscape. The Food Loft is more than just a desk; it’s a place to meet, network, and forge a future for food at the grassroots level.”

John Van Gieson is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Fla. He owns and runs Van Gieson Media Relations, Inc.

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