Kitchen incubators stir up food businesses

Incubators can provide a crucial link for start-ups.

If you’ve decided you want to take a favorite recipe all the way to the big time, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? But you can’t start just anywhere, if you want to sell through retail stores. In the U.S., there are regulations that keep food safe, and one of the most important ones is that food sold to others must be produced in a licensed kitchen. Incubator kitchens provide licensed kitchen space, equipment, and varying levels of other services for food business entrepreneurs who want to focus their start-up capital on proving the product and market.

It is expensive to meet the requirements for a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development licensed kitchen, as you must have a separate kitchen dedicated to your food business. There are specific requirements for washable floors, walls and ceilings, lighting and ventilation, and equipment must be easily cleaned and in good repair. As an alternative, renting a restaurant or church kitchen may work, but finding an arrangement where you can use it when you need it may be an issue. In addition, not all commercial kitchens have the proper licensing from MDARD to allow for the production of food that will be sold commercially.

Kitchen incubators, or culinary incubators, came about to help with this very dilemma. Beginning in about 2006, they spread rapidly across Michigan with the objective of supporting entrepreneurs, and were spurred on by increased consumer interest in locally sourced, natural foods. Incubators give people time to develop a their product, test their market, and get experience with the production and operations of their business..

Incubators vary in amenities and charges, depending on the services you need. There are usually hourly rates, and may be additional charges for specific equipment, packing and storage. The kitchen is shared with other “members”, and is therefore scheduled according to availability. Some incubaters also have experienced staff who assist clients with various aspects of bringing the product to market, so be sure to to ask about services offered beyond the space rental. The MSU Product Center is not an incubator, but offers free and confidential business counseling to food entrepreneurs, as well as classes. 

According to a 2014 story done by National Public Radio (NPR), the number of food incubators across the country has grown to about 200 in recent years. You can find incubators that have opened online, and the website is searchable by state. However, be aware that not all of the incubators listed are still in operation. 

The MSU Product Center, in partnership with Michigan State University Extension, provides business counseling for product development, packaging and marketing strategies that will help Michigan entrepreneurs commercialize high-value, consumer–responsive food, value-added agriculture, and natural resource products. For more information, visit the MSU Product Center website or call 517-432-8750.

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