Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Entrepreneurs in Action

Being part of a "foodie" family (Lois is an outstanding cook, caterer and restaurant critic and my son Matt is an up and coming chef and caterer), my interest was sparked by an article I read on food incubators.  It turns out they are sprouting up in major cities across the country.  One that caught my eye is Union Kitchen in Washington DC and it just happens to be in walking distance of the hotel I was staying at during a recent business trip.

I emailed the principal owner, Jonas Singer, and he invited me for a tour.  What I heard and saw was exciting and offers a glimpse of what we can have in Plainfield if we are creative, smart and lucky.

First, what is a food incubator.  People starting out in the food business face daunting business challenges like financing equipment, complying with health department regulations and many other business requirements.  And that is on top of developing winning recipes and producing and marketing food products.  Enter Union Kitchen.  They will take care of all your business needs for a monthly fee.  You can put your energy and creativity into your catering job, your pastries, your smoked sausage or whatever you want to pursue.  They provide you with storage space, a kitchen with commercial equipment (health dept. licensed) and an opportunity to work alongside other up and coming chefs and caterers.

Union Kitchen is an unassuming warehouse building from the outside.  But a fascinating assortment of activities is taking place in the various spaces of Union Kitchen.  The sausage makers, evidently selling their product successfully, were building a smokehouse in an upstairs room.  There was a large stainless steel vessel holding the ingredients for root beer.  One room held tents, inside of which a tea called Kombucha was fermenting for 3 days before bottling.  At work tables, a chef was making what looked like Greek pastries.  Another was making a salad for a catering job.  In another room, a small group was planning floral arrangements and invitations for a wedding.

I saw all this on my tour but there were more surprises to be revealed.  I saw synergies between the members as the people renting space are called.  The floral arrangement company offers reducing pricing for the members who are catering special events.  The Union Kitchen owner(s) were providing the space for the smokehouse in exchange for an equity share in the sausage business.  The owners also offer to market and staff the catering jobs of their members.  The caterers can opt to simply print menus and the owners will solicit the jobs for them, deliver the food and provide the on-site food assemblers and wait staff.

Then I sat down with the principal owner and more surprises followed.  Jonas obtained government job training fund to connect people with disabilities and those re-entering the community from prison to career opportunities in the food industry. Participants are working for Union Kitchen and also for some of its members. 

Jonas wanted to know about Plainfield and our downtown development plans.  I told him what he already knew, that there is a tremendous demand for "craft" food and beverage products in the NYC metropolitan area and what he didn't know, that Plainfield is well positioned and very interested to welcome food entrepreneurs.  He expressed interest in consulting with or franchising new food incubators.  He said the incubator business is challenging, not a guaranteed money-maker.  That was confirmed by a news story I found on an internet search which stated that sometimes it's a good deal for the members but the owners struggle to earn a profit.  From what I saw, however, Union Kitchen is thriving.

I offered to exchange business cards upon leaving but it seems that in some circles, business cards are old-fashioned.  You can guess which one of us didn't have one.  Happily, Jonas does have an email address.

1 comment:

Alan Goldstein said...

An interesting idea, and I do think it could make sense at the right time given our multi-ethnic flavor. Lo and behold, Frank Cretella, he of the indirect seat on the planning board, has proposed just such an animal- http://ptalker2.blogspot.com/2013/12/landmark-eyes-lot-9-for-new-project.html