No two incubators think alike

Donut preparation

Joe Fassler

Donut preparation

Joe Fassler

From social impact to zero waste, these eight models shape programs around priorities

The word “incubator” doesn’t seem an adequate identifier for the business development centers on our list. Truth is, it’s a catch-all word that means many different things in many different places. There’s really no one-size-fits-all incubator.

By some accounts there are as many as 200 food incubators across the country (possibly as many as 500); each one has its own identity and serves its own particular population. Sure, these institutions build food businesses, but they also catalyze communities, close loops, make names, pioneer programs, preserve recipes and mobilize forces.

Perhaps “birthplace” is a better word, then. These eight influential incubators have birthed so much more than just food.

Union KitchenUnion Kitchen

The Name Brand: Union Kitchen
Washington, D.C.

The “Made in Union Kitchen” brand is stamped all over the D.C. food scene. Since the incubator launched in 2012, more than 120 businesses have made use of it, including local successes Ice Cream Jubilee and Rare Sweets. There are currently 65 member businesses (Dirty South Deli and CakeLove, among them), 20 employees, and three facilities: the original 7,300-square-foot culinary incubator in the city’s NoMa neighborhood, a second 15,000-square-foot incubator space in the up-and-coming Ivy City neighborhood, and a new storefront, Union Kitchen Grocery in Capitol Hill, that sells more than 100 products produced by current and former members.

The food industry is very hard. You’re putting a lot of cash into it and you’re guaranteed nothing.

The incubator got its start when demand for Cullen Gilchrist and Jonas Singer’s chocolate chip cookies grew beyond what they could make at their Blind Dog Café and Bakery. The only commercial kitchen space Gilchrist and Singer could find to rent was much bigger than they needed, so they started looking for other food businesses tenants. Those young companies, it turned out, needed more than space. So they started adding classes on business basics, QuickBooks, invoicing, and social media. “The food industry is very hard,” says Gilchrist. “You’re putting a lot of cash into it and you’re guaranteed nothing.”

Today, members can receive training and mentorship on a variety of topics, including product development, branding and marketing, fundraising, sales, and distribution. In addition to the grocery, Union Kitchen runs a catering service and has its own distribution and sales force selling products in over 60 different area stores including Whole Foods, Yes! Organic Market, and Mom’s Organic Market. “We’re doing everything we can to push our members’ stories out there,” says Gilchrist.

Membership starts at $800 a month, which includes kitchen space and access to a full array of kitchen equipment, storage, wholesale ingredient purchasing, cleaning services, and monthly meetings.

The Specialist: Organic Food Incubator
Long Island City, NY

Most co-packers have mandatory minimum production runs that start at 3,000 to 5,000 gallons. Organic Food Incubator’s specialty is small-batch contract manufacturing. Its production runs can go as low as 50 gallons. “We offer a nice solution for startups: You have an idea you want to make barbecue sauce. We can help you get it in a bottle at a reasonable price for only a small amount of product,” says co-founder and operator Mike Schwartz.

OFI’s specialty is niches. Fifty businesses currently operate in the organic, vegetarian, and gluten-free facility. More than 75 companies have gone through the incubator since 2011, including Kombrewcha and Hella Bitters.

You have an idea you want to make barbecue sauce. We can help you get it in a bottle at a reasonable price.

OFI offers a three-hour class that covers the basics of starting up a food business. Members rent out space on an hourly basis in the 20,000-square-foot daily kitchens or on a short-term monthly basis in the private kitchens. Co-packing clients might rent space once every few months. If a member needs to hire someone, an employee sharing program is available. Other incubators contact OFI for help in starting up their own operations, and outside food businesses pay for consulting, but Schwartz says that within the incubator space the advice is “casual and free; value-added. It’s part of what we do.”

Whiner Beer Co at PlantRia Neri

The Closed Loop: The Plant
Chicago, IL

The Plant is housed in an old Chicago meat factory of the kind Upton Sinclair once wrote about. But its current function couldn’t be further from the building’s origins. Now it’s home to a mushroom farm that uses spent grains from the in-house brewery, a fish-producing facility that feeds a vertical garden, and an anaerobic digester that generates fuel for electricity. The ultimate goal: zero waste, closed loop.

Reishi mushrooms grow at Plant Chicago, NFP Plant Chicago, NFP

Reishi mushrooms grow at The Plant

Entrepreneurs can grow everything from vegetables to sea creatures—outdoors, indoors, vertically, in and on top of— the 95,000-square-foot space. Plant Chicago, the not-for-profit organization that operates out of The Plant, runs a CSA and a Saturday farmers’ market. Members can sell their products, fee-free, and the South Side gets an infusion of farm food on a weekly basis.

“We’re incubating our incubator services—providing the support we can as we go. It’s a rolling process,” says Carolee Kokola, director of enterprise operations at Bubbly Dynamics, the company that owns and operates The Plant. The organization shares expertise on the practical side of starting a business. For example, when former Plant Chicago employee Kate Purvis and Sia Xeros decided they wanted to start a shrimp farm, the organization coordinated introductions with representatives from the city and state. “It reduces the trepidation they have in dealing with these agencies,” says Kokola. “It helps facilitate the process.”

Kitchen CoopKitchen Coop

Group Mentality: The Kitchen Coop
Broomfield, CO

The Kitchen Coop (and no, they didn’t leave the hyphen out of co-op—they mean coop, like chickens) is all about using technology to help small businesses scale up. Founder Jeff Greenberg is “trying to embed best practices into these small companies. One of the great ways to do that is to develop software that has rules and functionality built in and shapes practices on a day-to-day basis.”

And Greenberg should know: Previously, he developed the inventory management function of Recipal, a cloud-based labeling service, and started TKC Mercantile to negotiate better pricing on ingredients and packaging.

All clients need help expanding their recipe to go from small batch sizes to commercial sizes.

But the Coop’s services go beyond technology. With 22,000 square feet, Kitchen Coop offers members access to multiple production spaces, co-manufacturing facilities, group purchasing, and accounting services.

VP of client services, Mallory Kates, says all members benefit from help analyzing their packaging for aesthetics, shipping, and shelf fit. The Coop also offers assistance in scaling recipes. Tim Murphy, who makes grain burgers with Hot Dang, says, “The Kitchen Coop really helped us scale our recipes. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their help.”

CommonWealth KitchenCommonWealth Kitchen

The Sharing Network: CommonWealth Kitchen
Boston, MA

“Our focus is on people impacted by racial, social, and economic inequality,” says CommonWealth Kitchen executive director Jen Faigel.

The group has two facilities, one in Dorchester and one in Jamaica Plain, with a total of 41,000-square-feet of commissary space and warehousing capabilities. The kitchen’s website lists 37 current members, including Little G Ice Cream Co. and Baja Taco Truck.

Our focus is on people impacted by racial, social, and economic inequality.

Programs include: a six-week Food Business 101 seminar, an advanced business development class with Boston’s Public Market, and classes in English as a second language and Cape Verdean Creole. CommonWealth often hosts guest speakers, like brewing giant Sam Adams, to discuss labeling, branding, and legal issues. Members can meet with industry experts who share their advice and can answer questions like “what’s the difference between equity and debt?”

Also on offer is an employee sharing network, and CommonWealth continues to invest in manufacturing equipment for co-packing.

Members point to the networking possibilities, which lead to collaborations and opportunities to expand. Member company Top Shelf Cookies was able to partner with Sam Adams to create cookies to give away at the Boston Marathon this year and sells a group of rotating flavors via incubator member Fresh Food Generation’s farm-to-plate food truck. Owner Heather Yunger says “I’ve really been able to utilize the community in the kitchen and it’s turned into success for me.”

Edible EnterpriseEdible Enterprise

The Farm Partner: Edible Enterprises
Norco, LA

The key to success for Edible Enterprises is partnerships—as many partnerships as it can forge between its food-producer members and farmers in Louisiana. “We want to not only make product out of the food but think about value-added enterprises that come out of farmers’ produce,” says executive director Sanjay Kharod.

For example, Charlotte Magoun of Magoun’s Kitchen started using organic Louisiana blueberries in her fresh flavored teas “like we do at home.” She’s since opened her own kitchen in Elmwood, Louisiana, and credits Edible Enterprises with helping her company “develop our sales base, learn about what we are doing, and move into the marketplace.”

In Louisiana we eat okra in gumbos in the winter, so we’re working with the incubator space to cut it up, bag it and freeze it from summer crops.

The group’s 12,000-square-foot, million-dollar commercial kitchen and co-packing facility allows members to produce packaged goods. Edible also works with New Orleans Farm & Food Network to help farmers and manufacturers support each other through recruiting and marketing workshops. “In Louisiana we eat okra in gumbos in the winter,” says Kharod, “so we’re working with the incubator space to cut it up, bag it and freeze it from summer crops.”

Max Messier of Cocktail & Sons uses local Three Brothers Farm sugar cane for his cocktail and syrups with flavors like mint and verbena, oleo saccharum, and honeysuckle and pepper that are sold in Louisiana markets and online. Edible helped Messier navigate the state department certifications with handy compiled checklists, testing lab connections, and bottle and label sourcing recommendations. He’s planning a seasonal line this year using local strawberries, satsumas, and melons and expects production to triple this summer. He says that Edible Enterprises’ co-packer setup has “given us the chance to really expand production.”

Prep AtlantaPrep


The Truck Stop: PREP
Atlanta, GA

PREP has only been open two years and is already being asked when it will come to Boston, Chicago, and Dallas. Founder Michelle Jaffe says, “this is in part due to the scope of what we offer and how many different types of members within the food industry we can take.”

The 15,000-square-feet PREP building is divided in half, with one side devoted to food trucks (which Jaffe refers to as the “true startups”). Truck perks include grey water dumping, a water refill station, a center for recycling oil, a dump, generator hookups, covered loading zones, and a wholesale food and supply procurement operation. In association with the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, PREP offers its members Food Truck 101 classes. For members who need help spreading the word or getting gigs, PREP even has a street food bookie.

The other half of the building houses a full studio production kitchen, a commercial kitchen, and 10 shared kitchens. PREP is also creating “training modules” with an outside vendor on basic business skills, cost of goods, how to scale, and how to access and spend capital.

Members use their combined buying power to order in bulk. PREP has set up an online wholesale purchasing system and has a food procurement manager to help members order ingredients from home 24-36 hours in advance. PREP members already taste the success. Ice cream maker Queen of Cream will keep using a shared use kitchen space but is expanding to a retail storefront. And Verdant Kitchen won the Flavor of Georgia Award for its ginger cookies, Savannah Snaps.

La CocinaLa Cocina

The Pioneer: La Cocina
San Francisco, CA

La Cocina has been helping low-income and immigrant entrepreneurs start food businesses for a decade. It’s also an influential model and a source of advice and expertise for other incubators. For example, executive director Caleb Zigas flew to Salt Lake City not long ago to consult with Spice Kitchen, an incubator working with the International Rescue Committee to help refugees start businesses.

La Cocina got its start providing access to affordable commercial kitchen space. But when it became clear that would-be entrepreneurs needed more, its founders drew on a huge network of volunteers to offer everything from marketing support to help building websites.

Every quarter, more than 80 entrepreneurs attend one of La Cocina’s orientation sessions. Twenty to 40 are eligible to apply, and three to five are accepted for programs that largely consist of one-on-one coaching. Each member is assigned a program manager and numerous volunteers to help them through every step of the launch process. That includes funding. Most new members come to La Cocina with less than $5,000 in capital. The incubator has partnerships with the peer-to-peer lending group Kiva Zip and local non-profits for fundraising assistance.

La Cocina features its members’ products at its annual San Francisco Street Food Festival, which in 2015 featured more than 100 owner-operated food businesses. Michelle Fernandez, who once ran communications and development for La Cocina, says that markets are a great way for way for members “to touch a lot of people and sell a lot of food in one day.”

Danae McLeod is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn, NY. She has a PhD in philosophy and works on questions of memory, identity, feminism, and food ethics.