If you’re trying to start a food business in Dallas and hitting nothing but roadblocks, Pilotworks can probably help.
The Brooklyn-based culinary incubator—who also has facilities in Chicago, Portland, and most recently, Newark, New Jersey—just brought its shared kitchen space concept to Northwest Dallas this week.
Like Pilotworks’ other locations, the Dallas facility will offer rent-by-the-hour kitchen space for bakers, caterers, food manufacturers, and others. Its members will also get access to events, mentorship opportunities, and a large online network of fellow entrepreneurs.
Pilotworks’ rapid growth, which includes a recent $13 million expansion capital investment, shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering how tough it is to start any business related to food.
And it’s not just the normal issues that plague all entrepreneurs. Kitchen space is hard to come by for most companies: it’s expensive, and running a food business means complying with a whole boatload of regulations that other industries don’t have to deal with.
Pilotworks founders Nick Devane and Mike Dee were aware of all of this when they bought 20,000 square feet of space in Brooklyn to open an incubator for food entrepreneurs. They wanted to provide the right assistance to budding food companies, whether that’s space for making ice cream, mentorship, or advice about scaling a business.
The Pilotworks HQ is located in the old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn (which is apparently a hub for innovative food startups). While you could easily set a horror flick amid the narrow, winding hallways and spooky corners of the building, once inside the Pilotworks space, you’re surrounded by tall windows, lots of light, and an endless supply of gourmet treats. One floor below the office is an enormous kitchen space where entrepreneurs keep busy chopping, stirring, mixing, and even teaching.
The shared kitchen space is what gets Pilotworks so much press these days, with many referring to the concept as “the WeWork of kitchens.” And while Devane tips his hat to WeWork, calling it “far and away the market leader” for coworking spaces, he thinks Pilotworks’ model more closely resembles that of another business.
“We like to think of ourselves as AWS [Amazon Web Services] for food,” says Devane. He’s referring to the “pay-as-you-go” approach that’s helped make AWS a leader in cloud computing. With this model, companies pay for only the services they need, bypassing traditional vendor contracts and licenses and saving a lot of money in the process.
Pilotworks resembles AWS in the sense that businesses can rent kitchen space by the hour for as long or short a time as they need, and also have access to a fully stocked inventory of kitchen equipment (as well as mentors and a robust online community of entrepreneurs). For companies that aren’t major CPGs corporations, this eliminates a huge hurdle to scaling their product: finding appropriate kitchen infrastructure.
“When you build a kitchen, you do so with additional room, assuming you’re going to grow,” explains Devane. “But nearly every outcome is bad because you have to take more space than you need. If you grow all the way to the edge of [your space], you suddenly need a whole new factory or kitchen. If you go down, you’ve got way too much space. If you stay the same, you’ve got 20 percent too much space. And that problem is persistent across food.”
To make this situation worse, available infrastructure is hard to come by. Good luck finding an urban kitchen space that’s 5,000 square feet, let alone 20,000 or more. And should you find it, good luck trying to pay for it without a hefty shot of investment — which can be hard to get, especially if you don’t have pitching skills.
Little wonder the food industry is one of extremes: the really big companies (think General Mills) and the really small guys (indie food labels or even local caterers).
And that’s what Pilotworks is looking to change. They want to provide entrepreneurs with kitchen space and equipment, but also give them clearly defined strategies to cut down on up-front capital costs and other issues that so often hamper business development.
“The biggest issue in food is upfront cost of capital,” says Devane. “You always need several hundred thousand dollars to invest in building out space or manufacturing, and we’re circumventing that in a compelling way.”
The Dallas space is just one more step in the road to growth Pilotworks is paving — for itself and others trying similar concepts. While Devane doesn’t think they’ve completely eradicated the infrastructure issue for food entrepreneurs, he hopes that Pilotworks can help reduce the problem on a global scale.
If you recall, AWS took a carefully planned path to cloud dominance, one that always kept (and still keeps) its customers front and center. To roll with the comparison one more time, I’d say Pilotworks is poised to do the same.