Culinary incubators are giving creative chefs the ability to launch restaurant ventures without the usual barriers to entry.
In an industrial kitchen on Congress Street in Washington, D.C., Chef Michael Santoro of The Watergate Hotel is butchering a rabbit beside a vegan chef.
Down the line, there’s a team tinkering with nitro-infused cold brew, while another group is prepping sliders for their food truck’s next lunch run.
The entire kitchen is bustling with creation and experimentation, which is exactly how Union Kitchen was designed to be: a collaborative space for food-focused businesses to turn ideas into a profit-generating reality.
Incubator kitchens like this are springing up across the nation—with more than 200 open to date—to support independent and innovative food startups.
By providing business support in the form of consulting, marketing, and even graphic design, along with access to fully stocked and licensed test kitchens, these sites present a massive array of opportunities for food entrepreneurs looking to test their products, go to market, or one day have a brick-and-mortar spot of their own.
Some of these incubators simply offer kitchen space and storage for a monthly fee, while others require users to apply and participate in business development programs.
While cost, payment plans, and amenities vary widely, access to quality equipment and brilliant culinary minds comes standard at all locations.
At Union Kitchen, Chef Santoro has used the kitchen space to test recipes while The Watergate Hotel prepares to launch a fully renovated and revamped dining program. When the grand opening rolls around, Santoro wants to hit the ground running.
In the meantime, as he struggles to test spring pea recipes with starchy winter options, he has been keeping his eyes and mind open to the constant influx of ideas and products flowing through the space.
“It’s constantly this revolving door of people coming through and gaining traction and momentum in the marketplace,” he says. “So you can use the space to train and develop your own people and processes, but at the same time, if you’re smart and open, you’re going to find new products and ideas that you never would have even considered before.”
As he worked directly beside a variety of teams, Santoro was able to taste-test plenty of intriguing local products that are now slated for inclusion in The Watergate’s mini bar collection inside its guest rooms.