The road to success in the food service industry is fraught with exorbitant expenses. Restaurant leases, equipment purchases, and steep utilities costs all stack the odds against food entrepreneurs. Luckily, an ingenious solution has helped folks with a dream and a talent for cooking soar over these hurdles and make an indelible mark on our local and even the national food scene. Meet the culinary incubator.
Culinary incubators like Oakley Kitchen Food Hall, Findlay Kitchen, and Incubator Kitchen Collective offer shared space and equipment, often at a recurring or per-use fee. Members typically include budding food entrepreneurs looking to make a name for themselves through ventures like pop-ups, catering services, and take-home meal kits as well as more established restaurateurs looking for extra prep space and equipment. Many culinary incubators also provide several other crucial services to those looking to build a successful food business, such as help with marketing, networking, business planning, packaging, and logistics.
The nine vendors at Oakley Kitchen sell 115 consumer goods at nearly 50 retail venues. Campfire Foods, which operates Oakley Kitchen, provides occasional packaging and logistical support to get all of those goods to retail establishments throughout our region. Of course, you can also sample the tasty wares at Oakley Kitchen itself because members serve made-to-order meals out of on-site eateries. It’s a great way to try several cuisines (and a few libations, thanks to full-service bar The Factory) in one communal location. Its list of members, while small, is quite eclectic, with Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Hawaiian, Belgian, Creole/Cajun, and BBQ all on offer.
According to Tyler Martin, CEO of Campfire Foods, curating a diverse assortment of vendors and offerings was a deliberate process. “We interviewed 100 folks, from established restaurants to first-time restaurant entrepreneurs,” he notes. “Throughout this process, we were seeking good food, food with a story behind it and a reason for being.” Because vendors can serve food directly to the public, Martin describes Oakley Kitchen as a bridge between a culinary incubator and a “brick-and-mortar.”
Jeffery Harris, chef and owner of Jimmie Lou’s, has already made the leap to his own digs. His particular “reason for being” is to serve authentic dishes from his native New Orleans. Now, he is doing that at both Jimmie Lou’s and Nolia, his head-turning new restaurant in the former Please space in Over-the-Rhine. “[Opening at Oakley Kitchen] was a big part of my culinary career because it set me up to be able to open Nolia, which was always the goal,” he says.
The diversity on display at Oakley Kitchen underscores one of the main contributions of culinary incubators to our city’s foodscape—the ability to give voice (and bite) to new stories, greatly expanding our region’s culinary offerings. Findlay Kitchen in Over-the-Rhine is another testament to this. According to Findlay Market’s president and CEO Joe Hansbauer, its commitment is to not only foster a diverse array of cuisines that reflects our urban core, but also to support food entrepreneurs who come from communities that are often overlooked for capital loans and commercial leases. Seven years ago, Findlay Market brought a group in from Philadelphia to help conduct a feasibility study. One of the needs identified in that study was people who lacked access to capital or commercial kitchen space. “We saw that those lacking access were often minority, immigrant, and/or women-owned businesses,” Hansbauer explains. “We set a target of 30 percent. It’s been 80 percent since day one.”
Hansbauer singles out Isis Arrieta-Dennis, owner of The Arepa Place, as the kind of success story that Findlay Kitchen was always after. “Isis was one of the very first people to walk through our doors when we opened,” he says. “She wasn’t an established restauranteur, just someone who came in with recipes that she missed from growing up in Colombia. She did pop-ups for [a couple of] years, opened a location in Findlay Market, and now has a second place in Wyoming. If, when we opened seven years ago, we were to dream up what we were trying to accomplish, it’s that story: someone without commercial kitchen experience bringing new food and culture to this area—and she’s absolutely killing it.”
Findlay Kitchen as a whole is also “killing it.” When the nonprofit launched in 2015, organizers expected to house 60 users a month in the 8,000-square-foot facility; Hansbauer notes that it now houses as many as 70 users a month. According to Hansbauer, Findlay Kitchen turns a profit that gets invested back into the community.
Newport’s Incubator Kitchen Collective (IKC) is a great example of the community investing in a culinary incubator. Kroger’s Cincinnati/Dayton division partnered with the organization to offer grants to local businesses, including Pata Roja Taqueria, F & Goode Desserts, and FOZbakery. The grants cover one year’s rent at IKC for each recipient.
IKC’s founder Rachel DesRochers reports that the Kroger partnership continued earlier this year with five new grants awarded. The current crop of recipients includes a Southern-inspired food retailer called In The Curious Kitchen; How We Roll, with its creative takes on the classic eggroll; Matunda Juice & Co, a Clifton juicery; Mimi’s Macros, which offers home-delivered, chef-made meals; and Laughing Bees Honey. Kroger’s support goes beyond mere dollars. “It is a very hands-on relationship, with Kroger people frequently stopping,” DesRochers says.
At the moment, DesRochers is thinking about upcoming IKC expansion plans. Oakley Kitchen has big expansion plans as well, with Tyler Martin noting that the upstairs is currently being renovated so that it can better accommodate community events. Of course, good, unique food has a way of strengthening community, especially when it’s prepared by passionate entrepreneurs from within the community, despite notoriously overwhelming odds. It looks like culinary incubators will deliciously reshape our community for years to come.
Findlay Kitchen, 1719 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine
Incubator Kitchen Collective, 517 W. Seventh St., Newport
Oakley Kitchen Food Hall, 3715 Madison Rd., Oakley