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Culinary incubators foster budding food businesses

At first glance, Rein Juicery, Gathering Grains Granola, and Jim Bob’s Barbecue have nothing in common apart from their culinary roots. But all three started from the same foundation — a local kitchen incubator.

When Niles Entrepreneurial and Culinary Incubator in Niles, Michigan, began the process of turning an unused kitchen space into a commercial kitchen for rent almost six years ago, its founders had no way to predict what the outcome would bring. But the model of providing a licensed kitchen, entrepreneurial education and networking to help entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses caught on quickly. Since becoming operational in 2011, NECI has helped six local business get off the ground.

Jim Bob’s Barbecue is one of them.

Jim Lacey, who is known to park his barbecue trailer at fairs, games and events, also runs a catering business and sells his bottled sauces at places like DC Meats in Osceola and Pizza Transit in Niles. Lacey started his business at the NECI kitchen two years ago.

“I believe I was one of the first people to sign up,” Lacey said. “It was great equipment I wouldn’t have been able to get on my own. Nowhere else could I get a kitchen of that quality with that kind of money. It’s a huge help.”

Lacey signs up to use the kitchen about once a week. He used to fill sauce bottles by hand using a funnel, but the NECI got a bottle filler and now he can “bottle in 30 seconds, so I’m a happy guy,” Lacey said. “A few years down the road, I’m looking to open a restaurant, but I’ll stay here until I’ve exceeded what they can do.”

The culinary incubator isn’t a new trend. There are 359 documented kitchens like it across the country, with 14 in the greater Michigan area, aiming to help foster local business. The model provides space, tools and equipment to ventures that aren’t yet able to invest in health department-certified kitchens, allowing them to do the experimentation and testing necessary to expand their businesses.

Lisa Croteau, program manager for Niles DDA Main Street, said the goal of the project is to “get people through to their own space in one to three years, not to keep them forever.”

The incubator found its home in a renovated kitchen at the former Pickwick Club, a past dining establishment on the second floor of 219 N. 4th St. The kitchen is open 24 hours a day and rents for $12 to $16 an hour.

Three renters currently use the space – Rein Juicery, Jim Bob’s Barbecue and Bow Wowz Dog Treats – with three others going through a process at Michigan State University’s Product Center to begin rental.

Local Foods Bakery & Café in Granger and Sweet Elegance Custom Cakes & Cookies in Edwardsburg are both former clients. Gathering Grains Granola rents the kitchen occasionally, as well. Though Rein Juicery still uses the incubator space for production, it recently opened its own shop in South Bend.

NECI partners with many area organizations, such as Michigan State University, St. Mary’s College, First Source Bank, Cornerstone Alliance and Lake Michigan College, to provide much more than just kitchen rental space.

The incubator offers partnerships with business counselors; classes on finance; marketing and food production assistance; and provides selling opportunities with the weekly Bensidoun French Market in Niles.

“We pull resources from wherever we can and encourage people to use them, but it all depends on what kind of help they need, ” Croteau said. “We’re most proud of the quality of the product that comes out of the kitchen. We work with some amazing people who rise to the top of the field. It’s exciting to have them see their dreams come true.”

LangLab in South Bend is hoping to adopt a similar model in the future. The local business incubator, which opened in 2010, currently offers space and events for artists and small businesses, an art gallery, and hosts everything from concerts to yoga classes to opera lessons.

Rami Sadek and Stephanie Rizk, owners of LangLab, said an incubator kitchen is in the design plans but is delayed due to a lack of funding. But there is a small step in the food direction with current tenant Zen Café.

Owner Shaun Maeyens began roasting in the space in March and plans to open a coffee shop there this fall. He also sells coffee at LangLab’s shows and events.

“They were sort of an incubator at first, in helping me get set up with an affordable place,” Maeyens said. “They’re very gracious.”

For Andrea Martin at Gathering Grains Granola, the NECI incubator allowed her the opportunity to make and package her granola in wholesale quantities and provided bulk storage space. The mother of three works full-time and doesn’t plan on having her own kitchen, but her granola is now carried in places like Whole Foods in Mishawaka and Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend.

“We all help each other out,” Martin said. “Everyone is doing this for the local economy and understands the challenges of running a food business. It’s a great program.”

The Niles Bensidoun French Market is open Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the corner of Front and Main streets. Many of NECI’s clients sell items there on a regular basis.

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