As operations costs continue to rise, opening a restaurant or food truck without establishing your brand can be a very risky move. But by partnering with a culinary incubator, fledgling independent food and drink companies can test the waters (and introduce a potential customer base to their products) without having to invest too much capital into operations at first.
This symbiotic relationship can help the more well-established company fill out their food hall or add food vendors to their burgeoning brewery. At the same time, independent brands get to bring their concepts to market before investing in a permanent brick and mortar space.
We’ve rounded up six culinary incubators in various stages of operation, from a well-established nonprofit center primarily to support culinary entrepreneurs of color, to an ice cream shop looking to highlight local artisans by supporting them and using their products in scoops flavors.
Cider Corps: Mesa, Ariz.
Like many of the incubators on this list, Cider Corps. — a 2,000-square-foot Arizona-based craft cidery and taproom known for flavored ciders and cider slushies — did not originally set out to help out up and coming food entrepreneurs. Instead the idea grew organically out of an organic relationship with two outside vendors: Myke’s Pizza and Pair Cupworks: Specialty Coffee & Tea.
Before opening up a fast-casual restaurant in Cider Corps. in June 2019, Myke’s Pizza started as a popular pop-up pizza joint known for unique pies like potato and bacon with garlic cream sauce. Pair Cupworks is a craft coffee micro-roastery and tea company that operates a stand inside Cider Corps. four days a week, with a plan to open their own taproom by the end of the year.
“Cider Corps is still a start-up itself and being in a position to help other businesses has been a very organic process,” Josh Duren, co-owner of Cider Corps said.
“We’re always listening to what our patrons like and what they want to see. Food has been a big part of that desire from our community, so as we expanded, we have found a way to grow our relationships with other entrepreneurs while growing ourselves.”
The average drink check at Cider Corps is $25, and with the addition of Myke’s Pizza, their year-over-year sales grew by 30%.
Dame Collective: Portland, Ore.
While most of the culinary incubators we’re seeing are specifically for food and drink brands, Dame Collective in Portland, Ore. is a small incubator specifically for chefs to try their hand at running a restaurant before opening their own.
The restaurant — which was opened in 2016 by owner Jane Smith – initially opened as a standard restaurant, but after Smith hosted a biweekly popup dinner series, she saw an opportunity. In February 2019, Smith reopened Dame Collective as a chef incubator, initially with two in-house “restaurants” that rotated shifts: each with distinct styles and menus.
“We wanted to create a place where we could partner with multiple chefs to highlight talent and new concepts,” Smith told NRN at the time.
Currently, Dame Collective has one restaurant — Estes at Dame, featuring Italian cuisine from chef Patrick McKee. Both the rosters of chefs at Dame Collective and Smith herself share the costs of rent and food.
Smith also recently opened a butcher’s counter and has plans on bringing more purveyors and chefs into the restaurant.
Fishers Test Kitchen: Fishers, Ind.
What better space to test out new culinary concepts than a food hall? Fishers Test Kitchen is a nonprofit, municipally sponsored “culinary launch pad” that is set to open in November with three concepts adjacent to the Sun King taproom and distillery in a suburb outside Indianapolis.
The first three culinary concepts were winners chosen by a panel which included Fishers Test Kitchen co-founder John Weschler: global street food brand Lil Dumplings, Californian comfort food company West Coast Nook, and Korean BBQ food truck Korave Korean BBQ, each offering menu items for an average price of $11-$13.
“We are the first-ever municipally sponsored culinary accelerator. Never before has a city come together behind an initiative like this,” Weschler said.
Fishers Test Kitchen plans to rotate out new concepts every 12 to 18 months.
Galley Group: Pittsburg, Penn.
Six-unit food hall-centric hospitality group Galley Group opened a food incubator-style food hall called Fulton Galley this summer in Chicago. The 10,830-square-foot space hosts five up-and-coming culinary brands including casual taqueria Taco Mucho from Ron Aleman, Thai concept Pink Salt by Palita Sriratana, modern American deli Steingold’s deli from from Aaron Steingold, classic Italian restaurant Italianette by Gerad Gobel and Alexis Rorabaugh, and Latin rotisserie concept Fairview from Dennis Bernard, along with an extensive bar program.
Not all of the food halls Galley Group has opened operate as incubators but this one in particular is meant to help entrepreneurs just starting out in their food and hospitality careers:
“Galley Group operates as a food hall that encourages innovation by offering its tenants an environment in which to test their concepts, and by giving them the opportunity to bring new ideas and dishes to their area,” a representative with Galley Group said. “These ideas inevitably change over time and are molded by their experiences serving at the Galley, sans financial barriers or other operational factors that come with opening your own brick and mortar.”
La Cocina: San Francisco
La Cocina is well-known as a nonprofit working to bolster the careers of chefs and restaurateurs of color who come from low-income backgrounds. The organization — which was founded in 2005 in San Francisco — goes beyond just offering space for entrepreneurs to sell their product and get their name out there: they also provide mentorship, education opportunities, and affordable kitchen space. For example, they help launch food business ideas through gigs like catering jobs, farmers market stands, and pop-ups.
The nonprofit has, over the past decade and a half, incubated 120 businesses with 55 “graduate” entrepreneurs who have gone on to own and operate their own restaurants and other food and hospitality-related businesses.
La Cocina will also soon open the country’s first women-led food hall that will support immigrant businesses and spread awareness of inequality in the food industry.
“We build collective social capital for the businesses to subsidize their competitive advantage. Given how inequitable the marketplace is, that and our access to markets and access to capital programming are essential,” Michelle Magat, director of development and communications at La Cocina said.
Salt and Straw: Portland, Ore.
What does an artisan ice cream shop do in order to ensure a rotating supply of unique ice cream flavors and mix-ins? Support local food entrepreneurs and using their ingredients in their ice cream, of course.
Although Salt and Straw’s artisan incubator program is still in its infancy, the company plans to “inspire other businesses to support these incredible chefs and artisans and share the process and tools that have allowed for us to do so” while also purchasing large quantities of products from start-ups in their incubator.
Graduates from the program include Don Bugito, which provided the toffee-brittle mealworms and chocolate crickets in the seasonal Creepy Crawly Critters flavor.
“When we use an ingredient in an ice cream flavor and it’s launching in market, these businesses receive more than just a large ingredient purchase,” a representative from Salt and Straw said. “We make these partners an integrated part of our marketing to shine a light on their business by highlighting our partners on our menus, in press coverage, website spotlight and on social media.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi