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.
Union Kitchen is also ideal for startups looking to break into the market.
“The biggest challenge to small businesses is access to capital, and what we’re able to do is defray the startup costs and a lot of the risk by providing all of the support systems,” says Union Kitchen’s director of marketing, Mary Beth Marks.
These support systems come in many forms, including financial advising, branding support, distribution teams, connections to local businesses and organizations, and a close relationship with the Department of Health.
While the kitchen started out with a focus on consumer packaged goods, Marks says that an increasing number of clients are looking to open brick-and-mortar locations, and that the valuable connections available within the incubators are exactly what fledgling restaurant concepts need.
“Creativity, passion, and enthusiasm are in abundance here, and people really benefit from being in that environment and being able to find collaborative ways of working together,” she says. “It enables creative individuals to thrive and their ideas to become tangible things.”
It’s this spirit of collaboration-over-competition that provides the foundation for San Antonio’s Break Fast & Launch food incubator, which started as an outcropping of a partnership between the city and a nonprofit micro-lending organization.
The resulting umbrella program, known as Café Commerce, was launched to give a wide variety of businesses tools and advice; however, organizers quickly realized that a huge number of requests were coming in from hopeful culinary entrepreneurs. Thus, Break Fast & Launch was born.
“Plenty of people have ideas about starting restaurants or starting bars, but no one really knows where to go for help for that,” says co-founder Ryan Salts. “It’s not like there’s a consolidated manual.”
To gain access to a crew of mentors who can act as a veritable manual on restaurant operations, individuals pay $75 to participate in the three-month program that is tailored to each participant.
Applicants need not come equipped with a culinary degree, simply with commitment, passion, industry knowledge, and a good idea. From there, the program aims to take food artists and aspiring restaurateurs and turn them into savvy businesspeople.
Each week of the program has a particular theme—from accounting to real estate—and participants are given access to knowledgeable mentors and speakers while participating in hands-on learning.
Salts emphasizes the value added from participant collaboration cannot be overstated, and he’s seen everything from kitchen- and staff-sharing to pop-up partnerships form throughout the program.
As a former resident in the world of tech startups, Salts sees some similarities between the creativity going on in that sphere and the creative renaissance going on in the restaurant industry. The things that differentiate the two worlds, though, are the things he finds the most intriguing and the most important.
“There are some parallels between food and tech companies, for sure, but there’s a social component to food and bars, and the people you meet there, and that’s something you don’t feel with a tech company,” he says. “If some small tech company or aspiring ‘next Twitter’ went out of business tomorrow, you wouldn’t remember them, right? But you’d remember the little place that closed down the street that used to make the best muffins in the world, even if you were driving by years later.”
Of course, Break Fast & Launch’s goal is to make sure that bakery stays open and thriving, to the benefit of the whole community.
The program aims to achieve viability and sustainability for restaurants and culinary businesses by helping operators avoid common pitfalls.
“Really, the problem we see most often is in overcoming things that people think really make them the artist when they should be the business owner,” Salts explains.
For instance, he says many participants make the mistake of holding onto ideas such as ineffective branding or unadvisable real estate visions.
On the other side of the coin, the program bolsters operators who are underselling themselves due to a lack of confidence. Salts remembers one participant in particular who was able to increase her margins by nearly 25 percent just by knowing the true value of her food and increasing the price accordingly.
The program culminates in a celebratory demo session, during which it’s obvious how much knowledge each participant has gained, as well as how much social capital they’ve accrued by learning alongside others.
KitchenCru is another incubator working to build community in the already-vibrant Portland, Oregon, dining scene. The company has helped a number of concepts make the transition from commissary kitchen to independent restaurants, including Holdfast dining, the brainchild of chefs Joel Stocks and Will Preisch, who have been working together off and on since 2010 and are also the co-founders of a bourbon-centric concept, The Bent Brick.
Holdfast began as a single pop-up dinner with grander ambitions but no place to grow. By using the space at KitchenCru, the team was able to start cooking right away without worrying about financial backing or real estate.
Holdfast used KitchenCru not only as prep space for its high-concept, ever-evolving menu, but also as the actual location of its dinners, which Stocks says definitely gave the events a novelty-feel that customers enjoyed.
Now that Holdfast has put down its own roots, it still uses the connections it formed in the kitchen, such as sourcing specialty breads from KitchenCru’s bagel company, Bowery Bagels.
Nomad PDX also began its journey from startup to sustainable in Kitchen-Cru’s space. “Going brick and mortar right away would have been a disaster,” says Nomad’s co-founder Chef Ryan Fox.
Nomad came onto the scene with no name recognition and no credibility. True to its name, Nomad’s pop-up dinners were originally held on a monthly basis in whatever kitchen space Fox could find to borrow. He remembers the “scary slow” days hanging out and sharing tequila with lone tables. This kind of customer interaction paid off, though, and soon guests were bringing their friends to share the experience, and gradually Nomad was able to increase the frequency of its dinners.
After settling down a bit at KitchenCru, Nomad has been able to expand to four dinners a week. By pre-selling tickets and paying back KitchenCru with a percentage of sales, Nomad was able to launch with virtually no start-up capital investment.
“The deal at KitchenCru is the reason we were able to survive as long as we did through the slow times,” Chef Fox says. “All we really had to put in was hard work and faith—that was the actual cost. And now we’re finally looking to go brick and mortar.”
Hard work and faith tend to be the resources most readily available when restaurant ideas are dreamed up—not to say either is easy to dish out. It’s the more tangible things: the storage space, the industrial kitchen, the startup cash—that cannot be summoned out of sheer will.
Food incubators are changing that dynamic. Finally, a way is opening up for a new class of innovators to reach their potential in the real-world hospitality industry, which is historically so inhospitable to startups.
By leveling the playing field, the restaurant world can expect to see some truly novel ideas, plates, and service models hit the scene in the years ahead.