Food incubators, coworking spaces for food-related businesses, are nothing new. From Harlem-based Hot Bread Kitchen to the self-proclaimed “food innovation accelerator” Food-X to the (relatively) newly-minted Pilotworks backed by the team behind Blue Hill Stone Barns, the sharing economy has had its foot in the kitchen door for a while—and there are a lot of options for burgeoning food businesses to choose from.
However, in the heart of Boston’s Promise Neighborhood, the nonprofit Commonwealth Kitchen (CWK) is trying to revolutionize the food incubator template by bringing vertical integration into the mix. They still provide a shared kitchen, access to education, and a lower barrier to starting a food company to their 50+ business members, but they don’t stop there. Instead, CWK takes a holistic approach to their incubator business plan, providing their members with resources to overcome the nitty-gritty challenges of food production.
“We saw that our companies needed way more support with things like permits, licenses, food health testing, and insurance,” said Jen Faigel, executive director of CWK, in an interview with the Spoon. And so they hired experienced staff to provide their members with industry-specific support in everything from R&D to FDA registration to listeria testing.“We’re trying to give people a realistic opportunity to build a viable company,” she added. “Our focus is on hardcore scalability.”
To achieve this goal, CWK puts heavy emphasis on efficiency. They invested in a few larger, multi-purpose machines for their kitchen that could produce multiple goods; ones that could, say, make the dough for Quicksilver Baking Co.’s savory rugelach and mix up a batch of fillings for Yang’s Delicious Dumplings. They also aggregated the various part-time workers to form a full-time staff trained in the production of a slew of their members’ products. This somewhat radical step enabled CWK to offer a competitive wage and benefits to its employees, offsetting this cost with increased efficiency in production. This shift also frees up the business owners to spend their time marketing and selling their product.
With this framework in place, they decided to open up their small-batch manufacturing operation for hire, allowing everyone from local farmers and restaurants to outsource their production. “I hadn’t heard of any other incubator doing this kind of manufacturing,” said Faigel. “Probably because it’s unbelievably difficult and complicated to do.”
But they didn’t stop there. Since their establishment in 2009, CWK has been out to bridge the gaps in the marketplace across all sectors of the food system. So far, this also includes tapping into the ripe institutional markets in Boston, namely universities. “Students often want healthy, transparent, local, authentic foods, and big brands aren’t paying attention to that desire,” said Faigel. But CWK is. Currently, Harvard University stocks salsa fresca from their member business Nola’s Fresh Food, and they produce and package applesauce (made from surplus apples from local farms) for the Boston Children’s Hospital.
In fact, making use of farmers’ surplus has become a key part of CWK’s sales; they’ll take crops that would be thrown in the compost, turn them into a value-added product, then sell them back, either to the farmer or in another market. Surplus tomatoes become tomato sauce peddled at a farm stand, excess pumpkin becomes pumpkin soup for a university dining hall. CWK is looking to shrink their margins wherever possible, and they’re thinking outside the box to make it happen.
This is not to say that CWK has perfected their method, or that their brand of vertical integration is without its challenges. “All of the changeovers are really tricky to manage,” said Faigel. “We have a good theory, but in practice, it’s very hard to execute.” Investing in machines to make multiple foods and putting in place resources and protocols for managing food safety, quality control, and marketing has also been an enormous hurdle. And with 140 employees to coordinate (18 of which work directly for CWK), logistics can quickly become a nightmare.
For now, though, CWK is expanding—and not just within the realm of edible goods. For example, Suvie, a smart oven which just blew past its Kickstarter goal, is one of its member businesses. “Suvie knew all about the tech side of what they wanted, but needed help early on figuring out permitting on the food side,” said Faigel. “We also assisted with beta testing for packaging, scale issues, and R&D.” She told me that Suvie is the first equipment business that has come their way, but CWK is certainly open to welcoming more kitchen gadget start-ups and food-related tech enterprises in the future.
In fact, Faigel is confident that the CWK model will soon spread. “The integration of services, small-batch manufacturing, lower inventory, and more on-demand production is the way the food industry is going,” she told the Spoon. “We’ve worked hard to figure out a model, which we think is enormously replicable.” That means that this sort of vertically-integrated food incubator model may soon be making its way to your city.