Kitchen incubators

Food for Thought: Incubator Kitchens

The new sharing economy has spurred the creation and proliferation of ridesharing, co-working, crowdfunding and more. Now we can add shared kitchens to that list.

Kitchen incubators are shared-use commercial kitchens that can be rented in incremental blocks of time in order to commercially produce food products. Kitchen incubators can provide entrepreneurs and small businesses the opportunity to establish or expand their operations while avoiding the high costs and risks of setting out on their own.

A recent report from ESI research on U.S. incubator kitchens indicates that the number of kitchen incubators increased by more than 50 percent between August 2013 and March 2016, and these facilities operate in 39 states across the country – frequently in urban areas. There are nearly 625 shared kitchens listed in the Culinary Incubator national database, and the website asserts that in addition to producing food, “commercial kitchens can be used to shoot TV shows, teach cooking classes, host food tastings, and other events.”

Indeed, these spaces are often dependent on outside activities to keep them above water. Most kitchen incubators operate with modest budgets, lean payroll and low overhead. But ESI’s most recent research shows the financial picture may be improving – 82 percent of kitchen incubators reported making more money than they did three years ago, and 70 percent of nonprofit incubators have received grant support.

In other cases, established businesses have invested in the shared-kitchen model. Findlay Market – a popular historic farmers market in downtown Cincinnati – announced a $2.5 million project to establish five industrial kitchens. The kitchens will provide local food entrepreneurs with affordable access to the commercial-grade equipment they need within a licensed facility. Pricing will start at $16 per hour for kitchen space.

Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C. was started after its co-founders realized the demand for their award-winning chocolate chip cookies had outgrown their small café space. The 7,500-square-foot warehouse they acquired had more elbow room than they needed, so they welcomed other local culinary businesses to share the amenities. Union Kitchen has since grown to include a Union Kitchen Distribution service which brings members’ products to stores across the DC metro area. In early 2015, they signed on as the first new distributor to Whole Foods Market in the mid-Atlantic region since 1996.

While the kitchen incubator phenomenon is in its early stages, these programs seem to have tapped into the timely national enthusiasm for locally-sourced food products, entrepreneurism and the sharing economy.

Said Findlay Market President and CEO Joe Hansbauer, “I want to help [people] achieve their dream of starting a business and leverage their skills for making great food.”

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