Six Month Lessons: An Incubator Kitchen Manager Springtime Update

Building Upgrades Planning

During this first week of spring, it seems timely to look at activity happening under the soil - ready to grow wild as the sunny hours expand and our Minnesota temperatures rise. Since November, the Kitchen has been in a state of subdued growth on the outside and furious planning, personal learning, and organization on the inside.

Through investigation and consulting with colleagues and friends, I was introduced to potential revenue stream ideas and a hard but informative  "hey you're predicting your income forecasts incorrectly" revelation. It's been lovely to have resources to consult, one of which comes in the form of a collaborative Network for Incubator & Commissary Kitchens (NICK) started by The Food Corridor. A singular post back in the cold grey days of December by another Kitchen Manager wondering why it was so quiet in the winter gave me solace as I was continually meeting and showing the Kitchen to potential tenants who over and over again mentioned not being able to start until Farmers Market season (closer to May). This seasonality reminded me of my exposure to the revenue flow of bike shops and farmers markets back in Chicago, and I was able to discuss changing the forecast accordingly with my Director.

While the financial planning is one of the most important impacts, so also is my own preparation and storage of energy. I was able to steel myself for what is (as expected) to be a very busy and bustling summer season here at the Kitchen and draw on my farmers market managing experience to utilize this time wisely. For January and February I identified frameworks and equipment to ease the busy season, revisited existing policies that worked well with an under-utilized space (but might not serve our tenants equitably once at capacity), recruited and assisted potential tenants with navigating the Minnesota Department of Agriculture licensing process, and cleaned (a lot).

I've had the pleasure of talking to both potential and existing Incubator Kitchens to share additional best practices through the NICK group, Google searches, and relationships with other nearby food hubs and fellow kitchen managers - some of which I would like to share here. Enjoy

“Lessons Learned After Six Months Managing an Incubator Kitchen” 

  1. Though roughly $200,000 has already been spent upgrading the building and equipment, and the building is still leased (not owned) by the Latino Economic Development Center. The recommendation to find an existing kitchen with good "bones" that you can fix up (rather than build from the ground up), can save you considerable time and money.

  2. The list of what you want to upgrade to your kitchen will never end. However, a brief list of what to look for in an existing building may start with: more floor space than you think you will ever need, existing industrial equipment and massive electrical capacity, water lines throughout the building, storage, room for additional or expanded coolers and freezers, and a basement or separate space for additional (dry) storage.

  3. You will want to move your setup - even after you think you've set it up perfectly. Invest in tables and equipment with locking wheels that can be moved easily as well as a hood system large enough to allow additional equipment that can be slid underneath on a cart (small fryers, etc.).

  4. Unless you have access to a nearby food hub or aggregation site, cooler and freezer space will be highly sought after. Build out additional walk-in options early to avoid looking for reach in coolers later. We've added shelving and speed racks that can be moved in and around the cooler for our smaller tenants.

  5. Invest in Air Conditioning and an efficient HVAC system. Even now, our current building still lacks an HVAC system, and the difficulty of determining how to vent smaller units without compromising security of the building overall has been a recurring issue.

  6. In order to maximize your tenant use, overnight bakers and off-peak hour use of the kitchen will be essential. With this late night use, comes a need for additional security and I'm looking at restoring the previous system used before we began using the space. Consider key code door access or special codes on the security system for each tenant to assist in tracking usage per tenant.

  7. Renegotiating storage allowances once your kitchen fills up can be a delicate issue - especially for existing tenants who were able to use a larger footprint of cooler, freezer, dry and floor space. Determine what is equitable before you begin allowing tenants to bring their items into the space, even when it seems there is no need - or, provide a formal written agreement about the space allocated once the Kitchen Management dictates it is necessary.

  8. Diversify your equipment to allow multiple types of kitchen use simultaneously. We are extremely lucky to have a walk-in bread oven for one tenant to use, while other tenants use the gas burners and a third can use the smaller ovens or even the larger Steam Kettle or Steam Skillet.

  9. Providing and accounting for shareable kitchenware (aka shareware) can lead to constant upkeep. Label all items with non-washable means and require that all tenants keep their equipment separate if they do not want it to potentially go missing.

  10. This has been my most interesting and rewarding lesson learned : Often, your role as Kitchen Manager is that of a case worker. You find yourself caring deeply about your small business owners, volunteering to help with menu development or brainstorming, assisting in website advice, and holding their hands as they worry about meeting with the licensing authorities. Properly preparing their businesses for initial start up meetings so that they leave your space happy and excited about their future, is the most wonderful feeling. It truly cements the mission of uplifting new enterprises and, for me personally, helping to change the narrative of an unjust food system and economy.

 

The beauty of these lessons learned is how each prepares me for what may come next. There are likely even more that I've omitted which I will plan to share in the future. For example, the issue of a necessary framework from which to allow group purchasing (of supplies, ingredients, etc) among tenants, not to mention how commodity prices and sourcing options for small businesses uphold a broken food system is a matter that I am actively trying to identify solutions for. More on these, and other lessons and revelations to be shared on another day.

Meet the Kitchen

In September 2016, I was approached by the Latino Economic Development Center to continue managing a shared incubator kitchen that was previously managed by Urban Oasis MN (who employed me to the point of their dissolution that month).

LEDC is an amazing and established nonprofit organization that offers loans and education and support for entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities. They cultivate and assist creation of worker owned farmer cooperatives across the Midwest. It has been a pleasure to contract for an organization who has such a history of good work within the farmer and food business communities.

The Kitchen On The Bluff (KOTB) has been in operation for just over a year and is a work in progress to show that an incubator kitchen can be and is essential for growing food entrepreneurs here on the East side of St. Paul. My role has been to build on a budding but intimidating framework of tenant policies and procedures, create marketing infrastructure, recruit new tenants so the building can be financially stable, and reassess building equipment and policies to accommodate new and growing businesses.

The Kitchen's mission has led the charge for what I've chosen to focus in light of what seems like a daunting amount of work that all needs to be done at once:

Incubate small and minority-owned businesses
Provide a location for value-added production opportunities for immigrant + minority farmers
Foster the vitality of the East Side business community
Further create opportunities in the local food economy

Initial first steps included creating marketing materials and a website as well as meeting with stakeholders to determine which policies are prohibitive to just starting out or not yet started food businesses. The result of these meetings led to a change the hourly access to the kitchen, reassessing what may be seen as financial barriers to joining for a new food business, and initial research for what I hope will be a major resource for these individuals: a future "Pop-Up Tenant" program for yet to start food businesses. Stay tuned for updates.

In the meantime, you can like KOTB on Facebook, follow them on Instagram, or visit the webpage for more information on membership, policies, and equipment or to inquire about joining as a tenant.