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The Rise of Culinary Incubators and the Unique Emerging Concepts

Kitchen incubators, also known as culinary incubators, have been in existence for decades. It’s just been in the last six years, however, that they have taken off—reaching about 200 in the U.S. in 2016, a 50 percent increase in just three years. At that time, 61 percent were for-profit, 20 percent were USDA-certified, and 40 percent had partnerships with outside organizations, as reported by Econsult Solutions.  

From the well-known La Cocina in San Francisco to the Hatchery in Chicago, culinary incubators have been designed to help aspiring food entrepreneurs enter into the marketplace with lower risks and less capital.

Let’s take a look at some of the more traditional culinary incubators as well as some of the unique venues popping up in this growing segment.

La Cocina, a non-profit organization, began in 2005. It is an incubator that was designed to help support low-income women, mostly immigrants, enter into the food business. In addition to providing a shared commercial kitchen, it also mentors and trains food entrepreneurs in successful business practices. In 2017, they incubated 39 businesses.  

The ACEnet Food Manufacturing Commercial Kitchen Facility in Athens, Ohio was among the first of its kind in the U.S., opening its doors in 1996. It serves 32 counties of Appalachia, Ohio with a mission to “grow the regional economy by supporting entrepreneurs and strengthening economic sectors.” In addition to offering a licensed shared-use commercial kitchen, ACEnet offers business planning, marketing, financial management, and regional brand access.

The Kitchentown in San Mateo, California, provides a shared-use kitchen as well as access to technology including in-house food scientists and an innovation lab. They also provide entrepreneurs with consulting services and the opportunity to grow capital. The Kitchentown has assisted entrepreneurs in the creation of 327 food innovations and was able to embrace its humble beginnings in 2014 with $52 million in startup funding. Their startups include businesses in the meal kits and food technology segment as well as ingredient innovators, artisan bakeries, and consumer packaged goods.  

The Hatchery in Chicago is a non-profit food and beverage incubator whose mission is to “enable local entrepreneurs to build and grow successful food and beverage businesses and provides job training and placement programs, which in turn create sustainable economic growth and new job opportunities.” The 67,000 square foot facility opened in December of 2018, at a cost of $34 million, and is one of the largest culinary incubators in the U.S. It contains 56 private production-ready kitchens, one large shared kitchen, storage, meeting space, as well as on-site business planning, classes, and events. 

Now, let’s take a look at some of the unique concepts that are emerging from the “kitchen incubator” model.  

Dame Collective in Portland, Oregon is a prime example of a restaurant that saw opportunity and opted for the “road less traveled.” Restaurant Hospitality reported on the innovative owner, Jane Smith, and her transformation from a standard restaurant which opened in 2016, to a chef incubator which emerged in February of 2019. What first looked to be ill-fated events in the guise of both a co-owner and an opening chef walking away, became the impetus for an alternative model—the hosting of several prominent chef pop-ups. While Dame Collective once offered this model seven days a week, Monday and Tuesday nights are currently the only available slots for popups from burgeoning chefs, restaurants, and winemakers. Estes, Dame’s resident Italian pop-up from chef Patrick McKee, is now open Wednesday through Sunday.

Fishers Test Kitchen has plans to open in the late fall of 2019 in Fishers, Indiana. This restaurant accelerator functions as a food hall within the new Sun King Brewing building. Three culinary entrepreneurs will launch their restaurant concept in Fisher’s built-out kitchens for a year or two before, hopefully, finding their own location, at which time other aspiring chefs will follow in their footsteps. Here they will test their concepts, refine their menus, and build their customer base. Their latest creations will be available at three food stands within Sun King Brewery and at The Signature Table—a space that accommodates up to 15 guests that will be available for chef tastings, dinners, and demonstrations.

What you’ll find when researching culinary incubators is that no two are the same. From mission statements, to core services, basic structuring, and type of clients served, there is an endless variety to choose from. Pricing ranges from hourly fees to monthly memberships, and some offer business support while others lend a hand with marketing and financing. Then, of course, there are the out-of-the ordinary concepts including the use of an existing restaurant space during off-hours.

As with most expanding business models, kitchen incubators are undergoing growing pains. Challenges include making a profit, limited capacity or storage, and increasing operating costs. Some chefs and food manufacturers that have outgrown their chosen incubator are finding themselves with nowhere to go—too big for the incubator, too small for a full-fledged business.

Culinary Incubator is a source for shared part-time kitchen rentals. Currently, there are 1,068 kitchens in their database.


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