Seattle has developed a reputation for having great restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. But far too often, the focus is on businesses with a brick-and-mortar location. With skyrocketing rents and increasing overhead costs, the price of owning and operating a storefront is impractical, if not impossible, for many talented, entrepreneurial chefs and makers.
At Ventures, we encourage our entrepreneurs to start small but dream big. Every year, we help hundreds of food carts, caterers, jewelers, and other microenterprises launch or grow in Seattle’s competitive market. One of the ways we do this is to help connect our clients with potential customers who are eager to support local, diverse businesses.
In July of 2018, Ventures received $350,000 from J.P. Morgan Chase to expand our incubation programs.
In the last year and a half, Ventures has used that funding to expand access to commercial kitchen space, pop-ups, and gift shows. Since then, we’ve helped connect over 100 entrepreneurs to programs like these. Within a year of receiving this grant, revenue for these small businesses increased by 27%.
“J.P. Morgan Chase is committed to helping communities make long-term investments by increasing the number of small business opportunities, and we feel our support of Ventures is an important way we are helping to build the long-term success of the local economy,” said JP Morgan Chase Chairman of the Pacific Northwest, Phyllis Campbell. “Too many people cannot find jobs and, as a result, they’re missing out on critical opportunities to be personally and professionally successful in the future. Chase is pleased to help build the infrastructure and create the connectivity for entrepreneurs to grow because we know that small businesses are the drivers of the business community.”
Increasing Revenue Through Commercial Kitchen Access
Access to affordable commercial kitchen space is essential when launching. Without production and storage space, it is nearly impossible to scale a food business and grow at a sustainable pace.
Whether it is canning pickles to wholesale, selling tamales at farmers markets, or running a food truck—it is compulsory to use a licensed commercial kitchen to prepare food for retail. Some licensed kitchens in Seattle charge $50 per hour without a monthly membership to $600 per day, stifling growth by barring many low-income entrepreneurs from entry.
In 2014, Ventures began subleasing space at a commercial kitchen at a below-market rate to meet the growing demand for affordable licensed space. We charge $13 per hour with flexible scheduling so that our entrepreneurs only pay for the facility when they need it.
Rebecca Wong started her food business, Puffle Up, in 2017. After hearing about the rise of Hong Kong cakes in the US, Rebecca had an idea. She told us, “a week later, there was a store in Seattle that just started selling it. And then I was like, no, if they can do it, then I can do it.” That is when she came to Ventures.
She took our Business Basics Course, Mobile Food Workshop, and rented our commercial kitchen space to prepare to debut Puffle Up. It was after speaking with a Ventures Business Coach that she determined her first location: the South Lake Union Saturday Market. Her business took off.
To date, Rebecca has spent 252 hours working in our commercial kitchen. Last festival season, she spent 92 hours chopping strawberries, mixing the batter, and preparing her ingredients in the kitchen. By renting space through Ventures, she was able to save between $874 – $3,404 on hourly rental fees in the summer of 2019. It is savings like that have made it possible for Rebecca to hire seven employees to operate her food cart. She is not alone; Ventures incubation programs have helped business owners employ between 85 and 122 people each year since 2017.
Business owners spent 502 hours in the kitchen in 2017, generating $82,336 in revenue. Two years later, our entrepreneurs are spending 55% more time there, clocking a total of 899 hours. Access to a commercial kitchen helps businesses grow: nine entrepreneurs took home $201,371 in revenue last year, a 244% increase in two years.
Reaching New Customers Through Pop-ups
Ventures strives to find new, innovative ways to connect our business owners with the community. In 2019, we worked with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to host a pop-up cafe run by a Ventures entrepreneur on the weekends. The program included shared retail space to sell prepared or packaged food, storage for hot or cold food items, and the cafe itself at a highly subsidized rate. Ventures provided business training through regular check-ins, sales monitoring, and coaching on menu items, price points, and promotional materials. The cafe is in SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park, where outdoor events are hosted throughout the year, creating a unique opportunity to reach tourists and local customers on an ongoing basis.
SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park hosted business owner, Rickie Hecht, owner of Landscapes Cafe to operate the pop-up from fall 2018 through summer 2019. After 20 years in the Seattle coffee scene, Rickie decided to launch their own mobile teardrop trailer cafe. Rickie graduated from Ventures’ program in March 2018 and started a mobile coffee shop in July 2018. A few months later, Rickie brought the powerful La Marzocco Linea Mini espresso machine to the Olympic Sculpture Park.
“It’s been a great experience serving the local business and residential community at the Olympic Sculpture Park,” says Rickie. “It’s also been incredibly exciting and inspiring to be able to showcase the true Seattle specialty coffee world and quality food scene to so many tourists and visitors from around the world.”
By the end of August 2019, Rickie had made $20,000 in sales from the pop-up. Incubation programs like these have helped our business owners generate over $600,000 in revenue since 2018.
Introducing Entrepreneurs to Wholesale Markets Through Gift Shows
Gift and trade shows present many challenges and opportunities for our entrepreneurs. They have the opportunity to develop relationships with buyers that could lead to wholesale orders and increased exposure for their business. This requires our business owners to present themselves and their businesses in a new and different way.
Because most Seattle Gift Show attendees are buyers for companies of different sizes, Ventures entrepreneurs go through the process of preparing for a very specific kind of customer—and often do so for the first time. They must be able to answer questions about increased production, maintaining quality control, and calculate the effect of wholesale pricing on profit margins. We encourage them to research industry trends and market segments to help them pitch their product to specific audiences and stand out in a crowd of other sellers.
Ventures invited 12 businesses to exhibit at three gift shows since the beginning of 2018. For Luisa Linares, jewelry artist and owner of Bella Lulli, getting ready for the Gift Show was a part of the learning experience that Ventures offers. “Even if I don’t make any sales, I challenge myself to be prepared because I used to be more relaxed about doing my jewelry, and now I’m doing inventory, doing coaching, prices too… I’m more organized in everything.” Luisa had been hoping to do gift shows for some time, and her participation in Ventures programming helped her accelerate the process from a year or more of preparation into just three months.
The process is valuable for both experienced and inexperienced business owners. Sarah Meranda of Magpie Mouse Studios exhibited at the Seattle Gift Show in 2019 right after she came to Ventures. While it was her first time exhibiting, she demonstrated the value of “showing up” by making nearly $4,000 in sales over two and a half days.
Luisa and Sarah demonstrate how businesses can benefit from participation in wholesale events like the Seattle Gift Show. At Ventures, we strive to pilot innovative ways to help our clients access new markets, and opportunities like these are invaluable. Since 2017, we’ve seen a 23.3% increase in revenue from our incubated businesses.
Business owners like Rebecca, Rickie, Luisa, and Sarah demonstrate the incredible impact that coaching and business incubation can have for entrepreneurs. We are so proud of them and everything that they have been able to accomplish, and we look forward to continuing to expand our incubation programs through this unique and innovative partnership with JP Morgan Chase. We are so grateful for their support for programs that allow Ventures to empower entrepreneurs with limited resources and create jobs.