Cooking Up Start-Ups

0611kitchen

New kitchen incubator in Green Bay aimed at helping culinary entrepreneurs launch into the market

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Sometimes what we’re looking for turns up right under our noses.

That’s what happened when those involved in an effort to launch a commercial kitchen incubator in Brown County for culinary entrepreneurs found the perfect professional cooking space in their own backyard.

“We had the kitchen they needed,” said John Bloor, president of NEW Curative Rehabilitation Center in Green Bay.

Now noses are being regaled with the aroma of fresh-baked cupcakes and hot, melting chocolate, all to create jobs and help boost the economy.

Need for kitchen space

The 1,648-sq. ft. commercial kitchen, formerly used by NEW Curative clients to develop food-service skills, opened in April as the Brown County Culinary Kitchen. As a shared-use kitchen, the public can use it for a small hourly rental fee. For entrepreneurs looking to start a food-related business, not only can they rent it, but they can also partake in a whole suite of business assistance, ranging from workshops on product pricing to obtaining proper licensing.

“We saw a need to help this group of entrepreneurs and there was just no place for them to go,” said Lisa Harmann, director of the Business Assistance Center located on the campus of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. The BAC is a business incubator operated by Advance, the economic development arm of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “It was our hearts’ desire to help people in this area who were interested in using our local agriculture and resources.”

Advance is one of four partners in the Brown County Culinary Kitchen project, along with NEW Curative, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Algoma Farm Market Kitchen. Each brings something different to the table, Bloor said.

“NWTC comes at it from the training and education angle, the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen is focusing on sustaining local agriculture and food safety. Advance brings the business expertise,” Bloor said. “We can do on-site supervision, and the (Brown County Culinary Kitchen) will provide some employment opportunities for our adults with disabilities.”

‘Buy local’ trend fueling success

The market for specialty foods is flourishing. According to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, sales of specialty foods in the U.S. during 2010 tallied more than $70 billion, representing some 13 percent of all retail food sales. The average specialty food producer carries 51 different items and sells $2.3 million each year.

The ‘buy local’ movement has also gained momentum, helping fuel specialty foods sales. Harmann said she thinks consumers are becoming more aware and appreciative of their local specialties and want to take advantage of them. That includes making those items, as well as seeking them out in the marketplace.

Community kitchens and shared-use commercial-grade kitchens are popping up all over Wisconsin, Harmann said, including the new NWTC Woodland Kitchen and Business Incubator recently established in Florence County.

Unfortunately, before Advance discovered the kitchen at NEW Curative, Harmann had to turn away potential food entrepreneurs.

“A number of prospective tenants came here (to the Advance business incubator) who had food-related businesses, but nothing we had was up to food code. We had to tell them ‘No, we’re not set up for that,’” Harmann said.

The nearest shared-use kitchen was in Kewaunee County, at the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen. Mary Pat Carlson, a food educator and cherry farmer from Sister Bay, founded it a decade ago. It has helped some 100 food entrepreneurs.

“A number of them have graduated and have their own kitchens, which is the dream for everybody,” Carlson said. “The goal is to get them to the point where they can get their technical issues worked out and get their market established so they can be on their own.”

But time slots at the Farm Market Kitchen had become jam-packed. And some 40 percent of her clients came from Green Bay, so Carlson saw the need for a community kitchen in Brown County.

Harmann and Green Bay Chamber Interim President Fred Monique began brainstorming about creating a kitchen closer to home. They even considered retrofitting a vacant industrial space to serve as a commercial-grade kitchen. But remodeling a kitchen, let alone building one from scratch, is extremely costly.

“The cost was phenomenal, and that really held us back,” Harmann said.

Ask and ye shall receive

NEW Curative happened to have a spare kitchen it was not using, and thanks to the power of networking, Bloor mentioned it to Carlson, who mentioned it to Harmann, and the project got rocking.

The kitchen had been sitting vacant for several years. The grant for the fast-food skills development program ran out a few years prior, and after that it was used by a vending company contracted to provide meals to NEW Curative clients and staff. But that fizzled out because it wasn’t profitable for the vending company.

What remained was a perfectly good commercial kitchen that needed relatively minor upgrading and that could accommodate two food entrepreneurs working at the same time.

Among the amenities the kitchen provides: walk-in cooler, six-burner range, grill, convection oven, 20-quart mixers as well as smaller mixers, proofing ovens, pans and racks.

The kitchen passes state inspections and is licensed for caterers as well as commercial food preparation, and is inspected regularly.

Bloor said they’re looking at developing warehousing space within the building so that chefs can rent storage instead of lugging heavy ingredients and equipment to and from the center. Already one entrepreneur, who makes caramel corn and cheese popcorn, rents space at the kitchen to store her industrial-sized popcorn popper.

Fees reasonable

So far five chefs are taking advantage of the space, with commercial ventures ranging from snazzy cupcakes to pet treats.

“The cost is reasonable,” said chocolatier Mike Allen, owner of Sweet Temptations by Michael. “It’s a big, huge commercial kitchen, and it’s here in Green Bay.”

Since he’s from the area, he’s glad not to have to drive an hour to Algoma. Another benefit the businessman in him appreciates – liability insurance for about half the price one would pay as an individual with a private commercial kitchen.

The experience has taught him other things about his chocolate business he wouldn’t have known without trial and error.

“I don’t need an oven or a big stove, which can cost a lot in a commercial kitchen,” Allen said. “If I were to put a commercial kitchen in my basement, I could get by with a scaled-down version.”

The Green Bay space rents for $15 an hour, and aspiring entrepreneurs wishing to market their food specialties can get mentoring and training in the food business by Carlson and NWTC for a few hundred dollars more. Entrepreneurs will need to submit a business plan within three months of enrolling and have their ducks in a row.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Harmann said of starting a business. “If people are serious about it, they have to make sure they have thought through things and have done their homework. They need to target what is their niche going to be and who are their competitors. But these are things they are going to have to be thinking about anyway. That is going to improve their rate of success.”

Prep work necessary

Unlike other businesses involved in incubator programs – because it involves food hygiene and creating food products the public will eat – the food-entrepreneur business requires a lot of oversight by qualified leaders. That’s where Carlson’s expertise comes in.

“There’s a large learning curve to this business. Tenants have to learn about packaging, labeling, marketing, pricing and staying within food code. There is a lot that start-up businesses have to deal with” before they can really start rollling, Carlson said.

Carlson has a degree in foods and food handling and has taught food service and quantity foods at the technical school and high school levels. She’s also a cook, jam maker, farmer and owner of Carlson’s Island View Orchards in Sister Bay. In fact, she initially got interested in shared-use kitchens because her own kitchen got too small to make cherry jams.

The partners through Advance can link entrepreneurs with packaging and labeling sources for their products, and NEW Curative may even be able to provide workers to do some of those duties for the entrepreneurs, according to Bloor.

Between Advance with its connections to business resources, Carlson and her food/organizational experience, NEW Curative with its workers (not to mention the site itself), and NWTC with its education and training component, food entrepreneurs can go from an idea for a unique snack food recipe to a labeled, packaged product in the supermarket practically all in one place.

“Really what brings people is the business incubation and support,” Carlson said. “After six or nine months with us, they are starting to think, ‘I wish I had my own kitchen.’ They realize they don’t need a huge space or a lot of equipment – just the right equipment. It gives us an opportunity to assess what their needs are in a kitchen.”

NWTC offers classes for people interested in doing a food production business, said Sally Martin, NWTC’s dean of community and regional learning services. Online courses, including packaging, labeling, display principles and distribution, of two to four hours each can serve as an introduction to the food business.

“As people are ready to tackle these issues, they can sign up online and access them anywhere there’s Internet service,” Martin said.

One size may not fit all

The program in Brown County will grow if the need is there, Carlson said. Right now they’re getting a lot of inquiries and tour requests from people, each with specialties that are very different from the others.

“In some cases (the kitchen space) won’t fit their needs,” Carlson said.

The kitchen isn’t licensed for cheesemaking, which falls under more stringent hygiene inspection regulations.

Nor is it organically certified, a gluten-free facility, a nut-free facility or licensed for meat processing, although foods that contain a certain percent of meat – such as pasties – are allowed.

NASFT lists cheese and cheese alternatives as the biggest specialty-food category, with $3.23 billion in sales in the U.S. during 2010. Meat, chips, snacks, bread and baked goods, and condiments follow in popularity.

From hobbyist to businesswoman

Jelly-maker Connie Anderson is taking classes in marketing her business with social media. She isn’t ordinarily on the cutting edge of technology, but the Brown County Culinary Kitchen nudges her out of her comfort zone.

“I think you have to find ways to keep up with those sorts of things,” Anderson said.

Her company, Cottage Grove Kitchen, sprang up from a lifelong love of cooking that started in her mother’s Belgian kitchen.

“Growing up, our family was the type who made things. We did a lot of canning and things like that, so I just learned how to do all that from my mom, in the kitchen from an early age,” Anderson said. “For me, it’s a stress reliever.”

Her husband’s coworkers became her guinea pigs. “They would say yes to this, no to that, yes to this.”

With enough positive reinforcement for her recipes, she finally decided to go for it and launched the business.

“It’s something I enjoy; it’s more fun than sitting behind a desk,” she said. “I enjoy the creativity that comes out of it.”

Cottage Grove Kitchen makes wine-infused jellies that can be used to add flavor when grilling and marinating as well as for good old PB&J.

Harmann says she’s thrilled to be able to help prospective food entrepreneurs who inquire about the program.

“There is no denying it – there is such a great need in our area for this. It just delights me that when people come to us, we can say ‘yes’ to people who have a food business,” Harmann said.

An alumna of Ripon College, Lee Marie Reinsch is a freelance writer based in Green Bay.