Good Taste is Good Business
You have an idea for a food business, and why not? Retail sales of specialty foods are approaching $100 billion in the United States. But a good idea alone isn’t the key to a successful business in any food market – specialty foods, catering, restaurants, etc. You may know about food, but how do you learn about business?
Food incubators are programs designed to help guide local, budding food entrepreneurs by providing resources such as commercial kitchen facilities and professional workshops to hone owners’ business acumen. Accelerators are more intensive programs that help a select group of entrepreneurs – a “cohort” – obtain access to mentors, management education, and in some cases investment capital, in addition to serving as a food incubator. For Connecticut residents who yearn to launch their own line of homemade pickles, start a grilled cheese food truck or any number of food-related businesses, Connecticut’s food incubators and accelerators are a growing resource that can provide significant business momentum.
Shanita Santiago manages an industrial kitchen at SEEK (Salt of the Earth Enterprise Kitchen), which is operated by the Center for Food Equity & Economic Development (FEED) at the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport. SEEK is the Center’s shared kitchen program; its workshops are operated under the program name CREATE. The kitchen/incubator has been active for over two years and the shared-use commercial kitchen program rents to budding local caterers and food manufacturers.
The program offers generous, low-cost rental kitchen space housed within churches that is available every day of the week, except Tuesdays and Sundays. Santiago shared that it’s primarily food caterers like Rose – a regular patron who does the majority of her Indian catering food prep at SEEK – who use and benefit from their spacious kitchen: women who have been in the food business for years looking to streamline productivity and establish a path to expansion.
A New York native, Santiago was originally hired to create a culinary class, an opportunity which led to overseeing all activities at SEEK. Both SEEK and CREATE programs run throughout the year to teach students about basic food preparation, knife skills and prep for the Servsafe food safety test. Students are encouraged to develop and focus their specialty in intensive classes that meet four times weekly. Classroom time, practice and meeting with successful food entrepreneurs are all part of the program.
Head upstate from Bridgeport to Connecticut’s capital city of Hartford, and you’ll find the reSET Food Incubator & Mentorship Program nestled in the historic Parkville section of Hartford. A collaboration with Hands On Hartford, reSET’s food incubator program is a 12-week course begins with a series of introductory workshops. One of the state’s oldest and most successful social impact business incubators, reSET operates with a small staff assisted by part-time consultants, 50 active volunteers and a network of over 100 social activists, lawyers and others who share their expertise with program participants.
Hartford-native Chevon Schand is the owner of Preppers Meal Preps, a healthy meal preparation company. Schand, a former college athlete and semi-professional football player, started his company out of his home and then joined reSET in 2019, looking for guidance to take his business to the next level. Schand was accepted into reSET’s Impact Accelerator program and now employs a team of eight along with balancing a real estate career.
Brown Butter Creations is another reSET success story. With the sweet business of baking cupcakes, cookies and cakes, this three-person baking team struggled to grow their community presence and identify their target market. With reSET’s guidance, the bakers learned how to target their audience effectively online after determining that the majority of their online orders came from parents nationwide sending care packages to their kids in college.
According to reSET’s Sarah Bodley, its food incubator is a culinary collaborative of local community organizations that are based in Hartford, including Hands on Hartford, the Swift Factory, the Parkville Food Market, Billings Forge, Knox, Inc. and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner.
West Hartford-based Bare Life, an allergen-friendly food company born out of necessity, also graduated from the reSET Food Incubator. After CEO Ali Lazowski learned she had several chronic illnesses, she created a food without allergens – and her cocoa is non-GMO, organic, gluten free, dairy Free, refined sugar free, vegan, paleo and Kosher. Lazowski completed the reSET program in 2018. Her business is thriving; her Coconut Hot Cocoa was recently named Amazon’s #1 new hot chocolate.
Both SEEK and reSET are members of CTNext’s Partners Program, which helps provide funding for their food incubator/accelerator programs.