Winging it around your kitchen table may be a fine way to get your plans for a world-changing app or non-profit off the ground. But when your start-up dream is instead for, say, artisanal charcuterie? Things quickly get complicated.
Let’s assume you can get your hands on the professional-grade equipment needed to produce at any sort of scale, without going into significant debt. You will still have to contend with a bevy of local and state health regulations, some of which outright ban wide commercial sale of food stuffs made in home kitchens. As more people dive into grassroots economic experimentation, either as side projects or work done outside the traditional ways of doing business, making a go of it in food remains enough of a challenge that it can convince many to not even bother trying.
That’s the problem that the “kitchen incubator” is meant to solve.
Spaces of this sort are springing up across the country. In Washington, D.C. there’s Union Kitchen, self-described as “a collaborative space for food entrepreneurs to leverage the power of working as a group,” and home to companies like Cured DC, Capital Kombucha and Los Verracos. There’s Uptown Kitchen in Grands Rapids, Mich., which opened in late 2012 to “foster and grow the food culture,” and whose member companies include producers of everything from old-fashioned candy canes, sausages and “lacto-fermented edibles” like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. Just getting off the ground in San Francisco is the Kickstarter-funded Forage Kitchen, “a co-working space for food” that will charge $99 a month for access to beer brewing equipment, business consulting services and more.
There are at least 150 active kitchen incubators in the U.S. today, according to a new industry snapshot of the field from Econsult Solutions, a Philadelphia firm that consults on their creation. Of 40 kitchen incubators that responded to a survey on which the study is based, more than 30 had been in business for five years at most.
Still, “some prominent kitchen incubators went out of business and closed their doors in the early 2000s,” reads the report, “creating concern about the sustainability of the business model.” The fortunes of incubators are tied to the fortunes of their member companies in the notoriously fickle food business. Per the report, “Entrepreneurs are passionate about cooking, but ill-prepared for business.”
Where the kitchen incubator — sometimes also called a “kitchen accelerator” — can go far beyond the simple shared-use kitchen is by preparing them for the challenges that exist beyond the stove, freezer or sous-vide cooker. They can help would-be food entrepreneurs with understanding the food business, navigating licensing and other regulations, and making connections with both suppliers and customers. One other possibility survey respondents said they were experimenting with was running retail shops on site to help keep up some cash flow.
Whether kitchen incubators can be made to thrive might point to whether the sort of DIY model that has revolutionized the tech world can prove as successful when there’s far more physical infrastructure and regulatory demands to worry about. “One of our big findings is that more data is needed,” says Greg Heller, the report’s lead author. It’s a start, though: there’s a handy appendix listing the kitchen incubators already known to be up and running.
(Disclosure: Heller is the partner of Next City’s executive director and editor-in-chief.)
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.