By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor
Starting a new food business is expensive. There are dozens of costs to cover and one of the biggest is the rent. In the past, up-and-coming food entrepreneurs would be locked into costly, long-term leases. This was both risky and required lots and lots of capital. Now, the food game is changing. Entrepreneurs across the country now have increased access to food incubators, which are shared commercial kitchens. These incubators are just like tech incubators–low-cost workspaces allowing tenants to benefit from shared expenses and without committing to long-term leases. These incubators have shared commercial kitchens, walk-in freezers, dry shelf space, and sometimes office space.
Food Incubators in DC
Nearly every major city has at least one food incubator up and running. Culinary Incubator has over 370 food incubators in the U.S. in its database. In Washington, D.C., the success of one food incubator, Union Kitchen, has influenced developers to create other incubators to satisfy unmet demands for affordable commercial kitchen space. Union Kitchen is located in the city’s NoMa neighborhood and has 50 food entrepreneurs on its membership roster. This roster doesn’t include the businesses that outgrew the space when the incubator first opened in 2012. Its popularity has led the food incubator to create another campus in nearby Ivy City. Hot on the heels of Union Kitchen’s development are two other incubators– Edgewood’s Mess Hall and Petworth’s EatsPlace, both of which plan to open in September.
This trend of building food incubators is not confined to the coasts and big cities. Smaller metros are launching their own incubators. Algoma, Wisconsin doesn’t have 4,000 people, and even it has an incubator called Farm Market Kitchen.
Pros of the Food Incubator Set Up
Aside from reducing risk for startups, one of the biggest appeals of having an incubator space is access to a network of other entrepreneurs in the industry. If the food incubator has been around long enough, there is access to alumni who have outgrown the communal space and gone elsewhere. This network facilitates the sharing of marketing contacts, industry information, and the creation of synergies among the entrepreneurs. If there is a coffee roaster in the incubator, why not partner with the pastry maker at the same incubator when opening up a local coffee shop?
These incubators often provide services beyond access to a startup network. They host seminars to teach business development 101 to the entrepreneurs, including how to effectively market products and what sorts of permits are required where they operate. Plus, having multiple businesses in a shared space allows the bulk buying of supplies; reducing the costs and sharing of cleaning crews to handle day-to-day tasks.
This support system reduces risks for entrepreneurs and gives them more of a chance to thrive. Union Kitchen’s Capital Kombucha started as a local kombucha (bubbly, fermented tea) brand that was only sold at select retailers’ shelves and can now be found at some Whole Foods and The Fresh Market stores. Another Union Kitchen alumni success, Ice Cream Jubilee went from making ice cream in the incubator space to making the leap to its own ice cream shop in Washington’s Navy Yard.
Taking the Good With the Bad
However, just because a food entrepreneur sets up camp in an incubator does not guarantee success. It’s still a communal space, so there are ownership challenges that arise, just like in college dorm rooms. There are problems such as, products spoiling because someone didn’t close the walk-in freezer and producers using ingredients that aren’t theirs. Also, no matter what space an entrepreneur works out of, some of them don’t have the business skill sets to develop a product the market wants. Being a member of an incubator space isn’t really going to change that.
So there will still be winners and losers but food incubators make “winning” are bit more likely– by reducing risks and decreasing some startup costs necessary for a new business to be successful.
The author’s business Cajun Meets Asian is located in Mess Hall.