Smile Politely

C-U’s need for a kitchen incubator

If you’ve been going to the Urbana Market at the Square (aka the farmers’ market), you’ve probably noticed a number of stalls offering baked goods of various types. Just this summer, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) decided to start enforcing a (10-year old) rule that requires all baked goods sold at farmers’ markets to be prepared in certified kitchens. This was covered by many local outlets, including Smile Politely. Numerous market fans were outraged by the CUPHD’s decision, especially given its short notice to the affected vendors. I could go on and on about how silly it is that they’re regulating small-time bakers in this way, but there is precedent in many jurisdictions to disallow sales of home-baked goods.

Luckily for us, all the vendors found accommodations at various certified kitchens in the area. That means all potential vendors, from teenagers to retirees, must now spend odd hours in commercial kitchens to bring their goods to market. While this market season was bursting with now-certified baked goods, next year may not be as fulfilling. Some vendors have been put off by the burden of spending time and money to work at another facility. Many baked goods take time; time to mix, time to rise, time to bake. With the new arrangement, this part-time activity has turned into a full-time endeavor for some vendors who now have to make time to attend to their products at their commercial kitchen. This has forced at least one vendor to consider alternative arrangements.

You may have heard of various “underground” food vendors in the area. If you haven’t, I urge you to look around. You might find a dinner deliverer or charcuterie slinger. They are making some of the best products you can find out of great ingredients. I love that the C-U food scene is vibrant enough to demand great local products, no matter the circumstances. Problems arise, however, when the underground food producer wants to open up and sell their goods to the public.

There’s no easy route for people to take here. The CUPHD doesn’t want numerous dens of underground food filth; they want inspectable businesses. On the other hand, small time food producers don’t want to immediately put in the investment to scale production and rent out a commercial kitchen every week. While there are kitchens available in town, a new “wanna-be” vendor is going to have to fit into their schedule. Despite still being in development stages, they are forced to immediately start paying for kitchen time. They may end up failing before they even get a chance to start.

What I think C-U needs is a kitchen incubator. Never heard of that? The idea is to offer up kitchen space that offers something to its users — a chance to start a food business. First, it would need to be accessible enough that food entrepreneurs can find a time that matches their schedule. The fees to use it must be low enough that a small start-up can actually get off the ground. It should have a wealth of resources: at the least — links to people in the community who can help entrepreneurs with marketing, packaging, and product development. If it offered some small amount of space (e.g. for serving meals, retail sales, cooking classes), that would help get people started faster.

Now, a kitchen incubator isn’t going to answer all the issues faced by the displaced farmers’ market vendors, but there is a sizable group that it could help. There are plenty of very talented people who could be making money with food. For many, the barrier is time and start-up costs. For some, they just don’t know how they would get their product to the people. A kitchen incubator could be helping these people become small business owners.

In the new year, I plan on exploring local underground food further and working with others to make it easier for food entrepreneurs to bring their products to market. Perhaps with a kitchen incubator, there’s another solution. If you think C-U would benefit from something like a kitchen incubator, supporting and encouraging the creation of new businesses, leave a comment or get in touch. If you want to have a food business or if you’ve already got one running underground, write to me. I’d love to create a community where entrepreneurs can work together and learn from each other to bring the most delicious, locally-made food to the people of C-U.

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