Are Kitchen Incubators The Future Of Food?
Somerville's Foundation Kitchen leading the charge of communal entrepreneurialism.
Recently we covered the hazards and challenges associated with opening a restaurant - skyrocketing rents, overwhelming red tape and massive financial obligations chief among them. Despite the risks, there remains enthusiasm across the food and beverage sector. And not solely in restaurants but also in the world of small batch products, food trucks, catering companies and meal delivery services.
There’s no single path to success but one that is growing in popularity is the kitchen incubator model – commissary kitchens designed to facilitate the needs of businesses that exist somewhere between cottage and factory industries. Commissary kitchens offer cheap space to new entrepreneurs, reducing expense and hassle. By removing some of the barriers to entry, these incubators allow products to thrive that might otherwise buckle under financial and regulatory burdens. One such incubator is Foundation Kitchen with two locations in Somerville’s Inner Belt. The operation was opened in 2015 by husband and wife team Tara Novak and Ciaran Nagle who hoped to reduce the barriers to entry of this tricky business. Foundation’s more recognizable clients include food trucks The Chicken and Rice Guys, Compliments Food Co. and Zinneken’s in addition to a number of smaller artisanal products and caterers like Boston Chai Party (fair trade teas), Par Tea (booze infusion kits) and Grace Brinton (allergen sensitive catering).
I meet Nagle at the original 121 Washington Street location. From the outside, the building’s drab, off-white exterior (due for cosmetic upgrade soon) betrays the vibrant action going on inside. As I arrive the Chicken and Rice Guys guys are finishing up a long day, blasting music from one of their food trucks and hauling in their dirty dishes. As they hustle in and out, Nagle chats with me about the history of Foundation Kitchen and the inner machinations of a co-working space. Clients rent out space by the hour and are responsible for their own cleanup and maintenance allowing them to operate without needing thousands in seed money.
“This place nurtures growth and helps you get to the next step. We take a direct interest in our members’ needs and assist in any way we can,” says Nagle. Monthly member meetings foster a sense of community (and the occasional partnership) while Novak and Nagle offer personal attention and mentorship, stewarding businesses towards successful habits.
“The Chicken and Rice Guys were the first ones in here. They were young and excited,” Nagle says. “We monitored them and kept on top of them which helped them implement systems for their trucks.”
“The tight quarters here keeps everyone on top of their inventory and time management,” he adds. “We’re teaching best practice discipline within the culinary industry. Keep the costs of goods and labor down. Those are the things that drown every failed restaurant in the world.”
Demand for Foundation’s services was so great initially that they opened a second location down the road within six months. The 3 Washington Street location is similarly unassuming. A red bricked exterior with the banner of the former Brazilian restaurant still hanging from the roof. Also due for a facelift, this location has been anchored by Café Luna’s exploding catering business. They have outgrown the incubator and are slated to move out soon. After Café Luna’s departure, Nagle intends to launch a series of dinners and pop-up events. Nagle chats with me while simultaneously handling his duties, advising a client on an insurance decision and catching up with the folks at Choppler, an on demand meal delivery service due to launch any day.
Foundation Kitchen’s latest success story is Samira’s Homemade whose selection of hummus and baba ganoush can now be found in Whole Foods - a high water mark for any small-batch product.
“Samira’s Homemade was with us from the get-go,” Nagle says while showing me the kitchen’s close quarters. “She started in farmers markets and now she’s in Whole Foods and has her own commissary in Cambridge.”
Of course not everybody that comes through the Foundation Kitchen doors succeeds but even those that fail do so at low cost, avoiding personal financial ruin.
“We get a lot of deep personal satisfaction from each success,” says Nagle. “Just to see a business get up and running is super rewarding but a few come in with a culinary dream and find out it’s not for them - either for business or personal reasons. That’s an equal success because that person walks away learning something about themselves and business without declaring bankruptcy.”
Foundation Kitchen and other incubators provide culinarians an opportunity to pursue their dreams while mitigating risk. That’s an awesome opportunity for anyone with big vision and a small budget.
Foundation Kitchen – 121 & 3 Washington Street, Somerville, 617.807.0213, foundationkitchen.com.