A look at how food incubators are helping entrepreneurs scale their businesses

For the past decade, "eating local” has become a trend in both restaurants and in customer’s shopping habits. With that, our food economy has changed: Instead of focusing on superstores and hypermarkets, shopping patterns are changing toward increased usage of farmer’s markets and focus on local, sustainable shopping and local makers. In 2015, a survey on local food buying habits found that 53 percent of respondents specifically sought out locally grown or produced foods.

But many of those food entrepreneurs — often laser-focused on one specific product or product category — do not have the resources to get their businesses out of their home kitchens and off the ground, particularly since it can be cost-prohibitive to set up a commercial kitchen, often while holding down a full-time job on top of entrepreneurial enterprises. Additionally, investment in food startups is increasing, with the national popularity of startups like Blue Apron and graze getting the attention of venture capital investors, as they tell stories about the origins of the food, and also tap into the desire for many to eat healthier, but with more convenience.

A local spin on the national trend

Two local organizations are providing local food startups with the tools to take these businesses from small operations — often run out of the entrepreneur’s home — to scale them into viable, growing businesses. Several of these local entrepreneurs will be on hand on from 6 to 8 p.m. on June 28 for the Soapbox Speaker Series: Food Innovation Economy at Findlay Market, where you can learn how these food businesses got started and how they are expanding with the help of Findlay Kitchen and the food community in Cincinnati, particularly the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic.

Food incubators are not a new concept: They have a presence in large cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as in nearby Midwestern and Southern cities, such as Columbus, Detroit and Nashville. They run on the same premise as high tech business incubators like The Brandery and CincyTech — they serve as a community resource that helps growing businesses.

While tech incubators supply startups office space and seed money, often in exchange for a percentage of equity in a company, food incubators provide kitchen space and mentorship, often for a flat fee that is significantly less investment than outfitting a kitchen. There are hundreds of shared use and incubator kitchens in the United States, mostly located in urban areas. Columbus, which is known for its food truck community, has an incubator kitchen, The Commissary, that focuses exclusively on food trucks (they can back up to the building for loading in supplies). Nashville’s Citizen Kitchens features food trucks and makers of sports nutrition supplements, cheese straws and nut milks. Chicago’s Hatchery, recently featured in Forbes, offers not only kitchen space but classes for entrepreneurs determining whether or not to make the leap.

The Cincinnati area is home to two food incubators: the Incubator Kitchen Collective in Newport, which focuses on women-owned food businesses, and the aforementioned Findlay Kitchen, which focuses on women, minority and immigrant food businesses.

Findlay Kitchen, which recently celebrated its one year anniversary, is a nonprofit food incubator. It's located on Elm Street and is part of the Corporation for Findlay Market and its overall vision to create a food innovation district in Over-the-Rhine. Director Marianne Hamilton and her team took Findlay Kitchen from concept to construction to fully-functioning incubator, and currently hosts 49 businesses in various stages of operation.

The incubator provides areas for food startups to perfect their recipes to dedicated “pod” kitchens that act as prep kitchens, commissaries or production kitchens for established businesses.

“We distinguish ourselves from other incubators by being socially conscious,” says Hamilton, referring to Findlay Kitchen's work with women, minority and immigrant-based food businesses, with a similar mission to Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem: To maintain diversity while fostering innovation.

To that end, Findlay Kitchen was philanthropically funded by individuals, corporations and philanthropic organizations, all of which can be seen on the wall as you enter the kitchen, including The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U.S. Bank Foundation, the The Allan Berliant and Jennie Rosenthal Berliant Family Fund and the Marge and Charles J. Schott Foundation. Construction, led by minority-owned Megen Construction, used 30 percent minoirty partners and subcontractors, which is higher than the City of Cincinnati minimum.

It's all about scale

Findlay Kitchen’s roster of active businesses is definitely diverse. The Kitchen hosts businesses that are in their infancy, including Dhaba, an Indian street food business that made its Cincinnati debut at the Asian Food Fest a few weeks ago. Rohan Hemani, who had no food experience, took advantage of Findlay Kitchen’s pop-up tent, which is a three-week rental to “try things out."

"[Findlay Kitchen has] been a backbone of nothing but support in our journey," Hemani says. "From local connections to industry folks to giving us opportunities to showcase our food to helping us think through logistical things we would have easily overlooked.”

Pho Lang Thang steam kettles at Findlay KitchenIt also hosts more experienced vendors, such as the Lang Thang group, which runs Pho Lang Thang and Quan Hapa, and uses Findlay Kitchen as a commissary. Having a “pod” kitchen, which is rented monthly and for their exclusive use, has allowed the group to buy two steam kettles. In turn, this allowed them to both make a consistent stock for their ramen and pho and to increase their production three to four times, leading to dinner service at Pho Lang Thang for the first time since it opened in 2010.

“It’s great working with other entrepreneurs, and a great way to help people to start or grow a business,” says owner Duy Nguyen, who hopes to stay another year or so and then move into either a larger kitchen or expand their current storefront space.

It even allows existing Findlay Market stores, such as Dean’s Mediterranean, to expand their offerings. Owner Kate Zaidan wanted to transition the Mediterranean grocery started by her father, Dean, to also offer prepared foods like stuffed grape leaves, hummus, pita chips and salsas. Though not a full-time member of the kitchen, Zaidan rents space for special events, like the Taste of Cincinnati, and as a resource for networking sessions, branding ideas and potential customers. She also uses the demo kitchen for her People’s Liberty-funded cooking series, Cooking Club.

“Findlay has always been an incubator, without formally being called that,” says Donna Covrett, founder of the Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic, citing food vendors such as Taste of Belgium and Eli’s, who got their start at Findlay Market and moved on to larger locations while still maintaining a presence at the Market.

The Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic’s Artisan Marketplace will feature businesses from both Findlay Kitchen and the Incubator Kitchen Collective. Current Findlay Kitchen member OCD Cakes and an alumna, Oh Little Mustard Seed, will have their own booths at CFWC, which is the weekend of Sept. 22-23 at Yeatman’s Cove.

Hamilton looks forward to other partnerships as well: Findlay Kitchen is working with MORTAR and will host two graduates, Gigi’s Rolls and Davis Cookie Collection, which is a recipient of the MORTAR Mayerson Scholarship as well as woman-owned Aviatra Accelerators. Findlay Kitchen is also looking to expand. It has room for one more kitchen, and is taking the next step into initiatives to start co-packing, acting as a distribution hub and aggregation center and continuing its work as the epicenter of the food innovation district in OTR.

If you’d like to get a taste of Findlay Kitchen yourself, join Soapbox, Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic and Findlay Kitchen vendors who will talk about food entrepreneurship, all while you enjoy pairings from Findlay Kitchen vendors, including Queen City Shrub, Babushka Pierogies, Pho Lang Thang, Hen of the Woods and Fab Ferments. Other vendors include La Soupe, which takes restaurant food and turns it into healthy, deicious soup for children, and Woodburn Brewery. Not only does this benefit Findlay Market, but you’ll also be entered to win two tickets to CFWC (a combined value of $480!), with one chance for every ticket to this event you buy.

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.

Read more articles by Julie Niesen.

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