They were just cinnamon buns, but selling them would be illegal. That’s what Angela Garrott, 43, found out when she brought the manager at the farmers’ market a batch of homemade buns and crescent rolls to sample.
The manager said Garrott could start selling her goods at the farmers’ market, but not until she started baking in a certified commercial kitchen.
“After maybe calling the 30th or 40th place, I realized it was a no-win situation,” said Garrott, who put her business concept, Bread Hot Mama, on hold.So Garrott, of North Hollywood, Calif., called local restaurants and caterers to see if anyone would let her rent space during off hours. Since they’d have to put her on their liability insurance, they refused.
Five years later, Bread Hot Mama is in full swing, thanks to a new rental kitchen in Pasadena created specifically to help fledgling food entrepreneurs get off the ground.
Like Garrott, cooks across the country say the biggest hurdle to launching a food business is access to workspace where they can legally prepare food for sale. Even the most basic commercial kitchen costs tens of thousands of dollars to build, and rentals are hard to find.
But the struggle for space is getting easier. As more entrepreneurs look to break into the food business, culinary incubators are cropping up across the nation to help them grow.
Since 2009, cooks in Minneapolis can rent space at Kindred Kitchen. New York City’s Hot Bread Kitchendebuted earlier this year. Even Alaska got its own culinary incubator when the University of Alaska Fairbanks opened up its test kitchen for rent in 2010, responding to requests from local food entrepreneurs looking for space to cook.
These rental kitchens generally charge about $20 an hour, which many cooks say is a bargain. Some incubators also offer classes and advice to help entrepreneurs get their businesses established and up to code with local food safety regulations. An added benefit is the sense of community with other start-up food business owners, who help each other with ideas, labor and marketing, tenants say.
Many incubators are operated by nonprofits, which secure grants to cultivate small businesses. Some are run by city governments or by people looking to open their own business renting commercial kitchen space.
The recent recession spurred the demand for more affordable commercial kitchens since more people began trying to launch food businesses, incubator operators say.
“A lot of people have always had a dream of going into a food business, but now that they left or lost jobs… they’re thinking about doing something they really love,” said Andrea Bell, who opened one of the nation’s first culinary incubators in the 1980s and now consults on such ventures.
Access to affordable rental space made the difference between an idea and a company for Michelle Kisselman, the 46-year-old founder of Glacial Heat, an Alaska-based salsa and spicy jelly venture.
“It’s $20 an hour and it covers everything: All your utilities, all your major equipment,” said Kisselman, who had looked into outfitting her own basement as a commercial kitchen but realized the cost was too steep.
She called the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates food production, and it put her in touch with the rental kitchen at the University of Alaska. Kisselman spent 12 hours there and whipped up 130 jars, which are now stacked on her kitchen table. Once the department approves her labels, the sauces will hit the shelves at local stores.
Some who work in incubator kitchens say being surrounded by food entrepreneurs is a major plus.
For Rachel Klein, a 26-year-old with a vegan catering and meal delivery business in Philadelphia, sharing kitchen space with others at the Greensgrow Farm Kensington Kitchen Space has fostered collaboration. She and another cook trade hours assisting each other with large orders. There is another cook whose vegan cookies she buys to include in her packaged meals. The group shares business advice and promote each others’ products to clients.
“We can’t rely on anyone for our paycheck so it’s really important that we’re always having new ideas that can help us stay afloat and succeed,” said Klein.
The incubators have helped many businesses get off the ground.
The Chefs Center of California, which the Episcopal Housing Alliance and Economic Development opened in 2009, serves about 40 regular clients from the Pasadena area. A number have already outgrown its facilities, said Joe Colletti, the 56-year-old executive director of the nonprofit.
“We’ve seen six food trucks begin with us, five or six restaurants or bakeries or catering companies start up as well and about five or six online businesses,” said Colletti.