Food incubators are not necessarily new. They’ve been called shared kitchens, culinary incubators, food hubs and more. Their growth grew out of the 2002 Farm Bill that allocated $27.7 million in grant funding to support value added food production and create Agriculture Innovation Centers. The idea was to help agriculture producers create greater ROI for their products in the form of value added consumer products versus selling commodities alone.
With competitive funding available agricultural co-ops and economic development companies around the U.S. jumped in and started creating shared food spaces. Everywhere from Detroit to Brooklyn, and places far and wide and in between sprung up to support this new kind of small business. Participants are caterers, bakers, food trucks, meal prep delivery companies and even manufacturers creating and launching new consumer products. Places like Union Kitchen in DC and The Hatchery in Chicago are just two of the hundreds of food accelerators around the U.S. that are helping entrepreneurs find success.
The premise is that a common shared space could bring together a wealth of tools and resources that are often cost prohibitive to individual startups. Things like warehouse space, office space, kitchen space, expensive equipment, and health and safety certificates to name just a few are things that can cost a startup hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other food incubators went deeper and provided resources for packaging, branding, legal, marketing and sales and even investor resources. And of course – the collaboration. A shared experience of running ideas past other makers in a shared space allowed innovators to test new ideas and work through challenges with others who may be experiencing similar challenges.
And incubators worked. They helped launch dozens of small business for individuals making salsa, baked goods, pet treats and more and foster local food economies. They’ve also helped launch fast growing national brands and new ideas like avocado gelato from RIPE, bone broth from Kettle & Fire and Brazi Bites, the Brazilian cheese bread bites seen on Shark Tank.
But it isn’t just communities who are supporting the future of food. Food manufacturers are also getting in on the trend and not only funding, but mentoring the next generation of food innovators in hopes of keeping their own brands fresh. Today, brands including Pepsi Co, Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Kellogg, Land O’ Lakes, Chobani and Johnson & Johnson all either own or fund food incubators.
It was more three or four years ago when I was turned on to the power of food incubators when walking the aisles at the Specialty Food Show. It seemed everywhere I looked was a new product idea that was part of a food incubator. Uniquely flavored honey, beef jerkys, gluten free snacks, interesting beverages, premium chocolates and more all had origins in a shared space. Heck it’s the first time I learned about savory and spicy yogurt – which are just now starting to find their way to market. And it seems nearly every week I’m now reading a story about an up and coming brand that got its start in a food incubator.
For those of us that work in the food space this is an exciting time. Big ideas often come from small spaces where rules, meetings, layers of management, timelines and budgets restrict us from taking unconventional risks. The more diverse and global our world is, the more exciting our food should be and it appears that food incubators are ready to show us the way.
As leaders in the food world, we should all find ways to mentor the next generation of food entrepreneurs that demonstrate a passion for the business that feeds the world. It might be surprising what it will ignite in you.