Kitchen aid - culinary incubators help food businesses grow
In June, armed with some family recipes and a home-business license, Daryl Thomas started selling his homemade pies at local farmers markets.
By fall, the Virginia Beach baker had outgrown his modest kitchen as the orders for apple, lemon chess and other favorites came pouring in.
“It was a challenge because I could only bake four pies at a time in my oven,” said Thomas, owner of Vy’s Pies. “So I was baking all the time. I’d start at 9 a.m. and wouldn’t finish until 10 at night.”
What’s a pie man to do?
Simple. Find the nearest culinary incubator. These commercial rent-a-kitchens are a godsend for budding food startups that can’t yet afford their own brick-and-mortar digs. Much like traditional business incubators, they offer a workspace and equipment at an affordable price. They’re ideal for small food businesses like Vy’s.
“Say you want to start a business making gluten-free muffins – a culinary incubator is a perfect place to start,” said Andrea Fishfader, a Los Angeles chef who opened one of the country’s first such incubators in 1984.
“Starting a food business is a very risky proposition,” said Fishfader, who owns Chef’s Kitchens in L.A. “At least 50 percent of them do not make it. If you had to lay out $75,000 for a kitchen before you can make any profit, then you really up the risk because you’ve got a huge debt. With the culinary incubator, you can walk in and, for virtually no overhead, start your business.”
Nationwide, the number of incubators is increasing. Fishfader is a consultant for Culinary Incubator, an online database that launched in 2007 with a list of six U.S. incubators. Today it has more than 60, including the first one in Hampton Roads, opened in October by two Virginia Beach caterers.
It was love at first sight when Daryl Thomas saw the baker’s corner at Yummy Goodness Catering Co.’s brand-new community kitchen, with its industrial-sized mixer, three-compartment sink and, best of all, a stainless-steel convection oven with room for 24 pies.
“I’m like, ‘heck, yeah!’ ” Thomas said of his first visit to the Virginia Beach incubator. “I fell in love with the convection oven.”
Thomas now does his baking there on Wednesday mornings. “While I’m there, not only am I baking more pies,” he said, “but I also have the capacity of storage as well, keeping them refrigerated for the next day.”
Owners Kelly McMoran and Lori Verity understand the trials and tribulations of small food businesses. After working as executive chefs in the Sentara hospital system, they teamed up as private caterers in 2011. Like many foodie-preneurs, they struggled to find licensed commercial kitchens to prepare their meals. They often used church facilities or the private homes of clients.
A year later, they built their own commercial kitchen, financed with catering revenues, an investment from Verity’s dad and a $10,000 minority- business grant from Virginia Beach’s economic development department.
“We knew when we were building this out that we wanted to share it with other small businesses – there was no doubt in our mind,” McMoran said.
The Yummy Goodness kitchen is available for $50 an hour, but rents are negotiable.
“We do a sliding scale for people, depending on what they do,” Verity said. “So if you’re doing catering jobs and you’re making thousands of dollars, it’s one thing. If you’re making cookies and selling them by the dozen, then we’ll [negotiate].”
Thomas appreciates the cost-effective arrangement, which allows him to whip up dozens of pies in just a few hours.
“Time is money,” he said. “I’m in that in-between space of, ‘Well, do you have enough investors to build your own kitchen?’ And you might not. So you just have to save your money to hopefully get that brick-and-mortar up one day.”
Thomas met the Yummy Goodness owners through Coastal Farms, an online cooperative of local food growers and producers in Hampton Roads. At the time, he had already been hunting for a culinary incubator, but the closest was Kitchen Thyme, a Richmond incubator established last year.
“It was a blessing when Lori said they were opening a commercial kitchen in Hampton Roads,” Thomas said.
Most food businesses need the blessing of government regulators to operate. Cities and states usually have strict laws for commercially prepared products. Businesses must be licensed by their departments of health or agriculture. Some localities prohibit the use of residential kitchens for food that’s sold to the public.
“That’s what a culinary incubator offers – a licensed kitchen that allows you to make your products on a larger scale because they have commercial equipment,” Fishfader said.
Even the incubators themselves have house rules. To use them, business owners must complete ServSafe or equivalent training, which usually consists of a day-long class on food handling, sanitation and safety.
“The law requires them to have a food handler’s certificate,” Fishfader said. “So all of the chefs that work in our kitchens have to take a class and pass a test showing that they understand basic food handling, safety and sanitation. There are many programs throughout the country. You can do them in a classroom situation; you can do them online.”
She attributes the rise in culinary incubators to the growing “foodie” movement, which has inspired entrepreneurs to explore trends such as organic jams, artisanal breads or products with local ingredients.
“Interest in homemade food and well-prepared food has really grown all over the country,” she said. “There are a lot of food trends that take off. Nobody knows whether they’re going to make it or not, but a lot of people may be interested in them. For example, raw food is now a very big trend. Organic foods and vegan foods are also continuing and growing trends.”
Thomas, who named Vy’s Pies after his mother, Violeen, is capitalizing on the interest in homespun baked goods. A chef by trade, he spent years honing his skills at restaurants and resorts. His experience in the industry taught him to build his business in small batches.
“I implemented the farmers market, which is not only a great tool to put your product out there but also just to advertise,” he said. “I’d go to Farm to Fork and all around Hampton Roads so people could taste and get to know Vy’s Pies. The word’s getting around. … And I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m growing a little bit, and I can’t put so many pies in my oven.’”
But success isn’t necessarily easy as pie, Fishfader says.
“A lot of people go into the food business with very unrealistic expectations,” she said. “Let’s say they’re famous for their grandmother’s lemon pound cake and they think that that’s going to allow them to quit their middle-management career. But they have no idea how to do the marketing and pricing and everything else. A culinary incubator allows them to try something out without a huge risk and see whether they want to proceed or not."