Food Incubators - Turning Small Businesses Into Reality

These community kitchens turn small-batch dreams into reality

The world is full of accountants-turned-macaroon mongers, artisanal jam makers and would-be pie peddlers with a recipe and a dream.

But how do they go from half-baked idea to reality? The answer for many comes from the community-minded shared-use kitchens, or food incubators, that are popping up in cities across the country. These aren't just spaces for entrepreneurs to cook; business planning advice–as well as a sense of camaraderie–is part of their appeal.

Nina's Empanadas, stuffed with Colombian-spiced beef and assembled by employee Nelly

New incubators are joining the ranks of more established organizations like San Francisco's La Cocina, changing and fueling our food landscape one business-planning session and takeout window at a time. 

The Innovators: Hot Bread Kitchen

New York City
Founder Jessamyn Rodriguez calls her nonprofit "The United Nations of bread," as a crew of international bakers produce 35 varieties–from challah to Moroccan m'smen–the profits from which help fund classes and business training for HBK's participants. In 2011, Rodriguez launched a formal food business accelerator, HBK Incubates, that supports its participants with culinary coaching, computer and English classes, and financial advising. "We have a core competency in fostering interesting ethnic food businesses, but we have everything from cake pops to African caterers," Rodriguez says.

Star Alums: Brooklyn's Runner & Stone was opened by graduates of the incubator program. HBK launched its own retail space last year, Hot Bread Almacen at La Marqueta. It stocks the bakery's wares and products from the incubator like square cupcakes from Minnie's BakeshopHella Bitters cocktail bitters and Brazilian truffles from My Sweet Brigadeiro.

Pierre Thiam of PT Catering shows off roasted salmon with lemon and herbs.

The New Landlords: Kitchener
Oakland, CA
"We're trying to change the commercial kitchen game," says Kitchener founder Sophia Chang. "They're often landlord-tenant situations. This is an actual family." Chang, once a small-batch ice cream maker herself, hosts roundtable discussions on business development and organizes monthly pop-up markets. Her next move: turning part of the building into takeout windows that Kitchener's 32 producers can rent as temporary storefronts. 

Star Alums: Juice and nut milk maker The Living Apothecary and The Stroopie Gourmet, a stroopwafel peddler.  

The Community Builders: Detroit Kitchen Connect
Detroit, MI
This brand new incubator–a partnership between food startup community FoodLab and Detroit's historic Eastern Market–is a beacon of collaboration and economic development in a struggling city. It connects producers with underutilized kitchen space in the city's most downtrodden neighborhoods. "The camaraderie, the partnership, the collaboration between citizens and communities here, despite all the woes–I've never seen anything like it," says coordinator Devita Davison. 

Star Alums: Joseph Wesley Tea distributes its single origin, estate-grown teas online. Social Sushi hosts sushi and networking pop-ups with a charitable bent and Fresh Corner Café aims to make healthy food accessible in underserved neighborhoods.

Prepped vegetables from Pilar of Kickshaw Cookery

The Party Planners: Union Kitchen

Washington, DC

Already up to 47 members since its December 2012 launch, this incubator goes beyond helping small food businesses with production, marketing and design. "We want to create culture in DC," says co-founder Jonas Singer–which they're accomplishing through weekly Saturday night gatherings on the building's adjacent lot that feature a pop-up market and live music. Five hundred people chowed down at one recent party.

Star Alums: Healthy snack company 2 Armadillos sells its roasted chickpeas online and Capital Kombucha is stocked in stores across the region. The founder of Cured DC holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and today makes salami, prosciutto, lomo and more from Maryland-raised hogs.

The Educators: The Cookery
Durham, NC

Co-founder Rochelle Johnson says, "We found that a lot of people who were starting in the business might have a great recipe but need a little bit of help with everything else." So the two-year-old incubator holds educational seminars for its members, hosts public markets and gatherings in a new on-site event space, and even published a business planning workbook for aspiring food producers ($27; available online).

Star Alums: Media darlings Big Spoon Roasters recently graduated to a larger production space. Monuts Donuts, which started delivering its doughnuts by tricycle, left The Cookery earlier this year to open a storefront in downtown Durham.