The Next Phase of Our Food Business Incubator
Jen Hughes

September 4, 2018

Let’s time travel.

The year was 2014 and the trend of mobile food business was taking off. Pop-up restaurants became the place to go. Artisan packaged foods were making big appearances at local grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and festivals.

The hyperlocal food craze was attracting eager and passionate people ready to turn a food business idea into a reality. The City of Seattle was even implementing a Restaurant Success Program to help local food entrepreneurs expand their businesses. Ventures was in a unique position to support emerging food businesses of all types after receiving a three-year federal grant. It would fund specialized coaching, access to affordable commercial kitchen space, and a food truck that would use a shared model approach to get businesses up and running.

About 30% of all of our entrepreneurs have businesses in the food industry. These range from packaged products like Doolie’s, to brick and mortar cafés like Miri’s Golden Gardens, to food carts that like El Chito Tamales.

Fast forward 3 years. It’s 2017.

Our grant deliverables were wrapping up and we had a blank canvas in front of us. We sat down as a team, looked at the data, and reached out to our food entrepreneurs. Then we went back to the drawing board on how we can support our food businesses in the best way possible. Here’s what we know to be true:

  • Starting a food business is complex. Not only are you building a business plan, but you are having to navigate licensing, permitting, and public health requirements outlined by the Washington State Health Code.
  • Food businesses need support every step of the way. Whether you are looking at expanding into new locations, playing with a menu change, selling wholesale packaged food, or building a digital marketing strategy, the food industry is constantly pivoting.
  • Access to affordable commercial kitchen space is essential when launching. Without production and storage space, it’s nearly impossible to scale a food business and grow at a sustainable pace.

True incubation is about connecting the businesses we work with every day to new opportunities and communities. From all of this, we made a decision.

Our food truck had to be sold.

A shared rental model approach wasn’t able to give businesses consistency in location. We saw the business plans on paper. It was very challenging to make the model profitable. We were seeing clients succeed in catering, packaged foods, and building out specific festival and farmer’s markets presence. We knew we invest in our programming to provide more effective support without a restaurant on wheels.

So where does that leave us? Ventures is still providing a robust toolkit of support for food businesses with a comprehensive approach, all led and managed by Laura Gómez, Ventures’ Food Business Manager.

This is what we’re doing now:

  • Offering customized coaching, specialized support, and side-by-side navigation of the complex licensing and permitting requirements for food businesses.
  • Providing integral, affordable access to commercial kitchen space. In 2017, 11 food entrepreneurs rented our commercial kitchen space out a total of 112 times collectively. Those rentals culminated in revenue totaling $67,126.25 for those entrepreneurs. Because they had access to affordable commercial kitchen space.
  • Creating access to markets for our food businesses. Especially packaged foods, through shelf space at our retail incubator, the Ventures Marketplace in the heart of the Pike Place Market.
  • Leveraging our capital products and programs to support food businesses in every stage of business.
  • Giving microbusinesses a seat at the table in conversations about policy and removing barriers for food businesses through the capacity of our advocacy program.

We’re confident and excited to be working side by side with food entrepreneurs at every stage, supporting them on the road of being sustainable (and delicious) businesses in our own backyard.

Interested in learning more about our food business program?

Contact lgomez@venturesnonprofit.org. Are you a small business owner looking to get more support to build your business? Register for our next free orientation!