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Detroit Program Turns Underutilized Spaces Into Incubation Kitchens


Photo provided by Detroit Kitchen Connect

Finding a place to prepare one's product is a challenge faced by many food startups.  In Motor City, a nonprofit program called Detroit Kitchen Connect is solving that problem by linking up local food businesses with underutilized neighborhood kitchen spaces.

"Folks who are interested in food entrepreneurship, novices opening their small food businesses, they need placement spaces where they can create product in a commercially-licensed facility," Director Devita Davison tells Seedstock.

"So Detroit Kitchen Connect answers that demand for these small micro-processing facilities for entrepreneurs to grow, to scale and start to make it as a food business."

A group called FoodLab Detroit, a network for local food businesses, launched Detroit Kitchen Connect last August. Tired of continually scrambling to find suitable prep space, members came together to develop a program to address the issue.

They hired Davison on, first as consultant and later as director. DKC was able to get off the ground thanks to grants from the United Way and the McGregor Foundation. The Detroit Eastern Market Corporation, a regional food hub and nonprofit development group, serves as a fiduciary that allows it to receive the foundation money.

Detroit Kitchen Connect currently operates two kitchens, one at an east side community center called Matrix Human Services and the other at St. Peter & Paul Orthodox Church in Southwest Detroit. It has a working relationship with a third run by a FoodLab member at Hannan House, a subsidized senior apartment complex in Midtown Detroit.

Ranging from from 1200 to 1600 square feet, these facilities offer cold and dry storage  and commercial-grade equipment like triple-stack convection ovens, multiple-burner stoves, rolling racks, heavy-duty mixers, preparation tables and a variety of pots, pans and cooking utensils.

In less than a year, the program has already developed working relationships with 10 client businesses. Good Cakes and Bakes is one. Co-owners April and Michelle Anderson use a DKC kitchen for prep and baking and then take their products to sell at a shopfront they own elsewhere in the city.

Using her grandmother's recipe, entepreneur Chloe Sabatier bakes French lava cakes at a Kitchen Connect site and sells them at local farmers' markets. Another business, the Michigan Pepper Company, uses a DKC kitchen to make hot pepper sauce.

In recognition of the financial hurdles many Detroiters face, the program offers three pay rates: $15/hour for clients with financial difficulties, $18/hour for FoodLab members and vendors that sell their food at Eastern Market and other Detroit community markets and $30/hour for businesses located outside the city.

Each business must carry $1 million in general liability insurance and name the kitchen's owner as additional insurers.

The spaces themselves don't charge a dime, though Kitchen Connect does have a monthly $700 McGregor Foundation stipend it pays out to help cover utility costs.

In addition to linking entrepreneurs with the kitchens, DKC also provides a number of other services: training workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, field trips that introduce them to practices like recycling and composting and networking with local farmers and gardeners through a group called Keep Growing Detroit.

Beyond this, the program helps businesses navigate the licensing process.

Right now, DKC only works with companies that bake foods or prepare value-added products, ones that can be stored like canned hot sauce. Davison says, this comes from concerns about costs and red tape. The program prefers to work with the state of Michigan, which handles these type of licenses, as opposed to the city, which deals with immediate consumption food enterprises like catering.

Detroit's Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, which used to handle food licensing, had those responsibilities outsourced to the nonprofit Institute for Population Health in 2012. Seedstock contacted IPH to inquire about its fees and licensing procedures but did not receive a response.

For those who choose to work with DKC, it appears to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Davison says the owners of the spaces are happy they're being used and local entrepreneurs are getting a leg up starting and growing their businesses.

"Instead of purchasing the commercial grade equipment, they're choosing now to hire other Detroiters," she says. "Both April and Chloe have hired assistant bakers. Others, instead of investing in equipment, they're now purchasing delivery vans. They've started to open wholesale accounts for themselves."

In the next few years, Davison hopes to get recognition from the city so the program can qualify for state and federal funding. Beyond that, she'd  ultimately like to see an incubator kitchen in every neighborhood in Detroit.

"We're trying to create what we call an inclusive, equitable, and just local sustainable food economy," she says. "Detroit Kitchen Connect is really on the forefront of . . . using food as conduit to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in Detroit neighborhoods."