Cooking up success and delicious local food

Buffalo has long been known as a community that loved good food. Over the past several years, that quest for the perfect bite has grown to mean wholesome eating, and utilizing farm-to-table ingredients to make purely local products. Something else was happening, too: An influx of immigrants brought new flavor to the community, along with a desire to run their own business. Other makers and bakers were also ready to step off on a new career pathway and blend family recipes and food traditions to create an independent business. This was delicious news for our economy and for the entrepreneurs who were ready to feed it. It also brought new challenges: How and where do you start a cottage industry in the 21st century?

Places like the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State and the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center provide the business development skills and preparation, which is invaluable for any entrepreneur.

But food preparation businesses need additional resources that go beyond business plans and marketing expertise and a review of applicable New York state laws and regulations. Food entrepreneurs also need the resources of a licensed commercial kitchen where their wares may be prepared in a controlled and sanctioned environment.

Until recently, commercial kitchens were predominantly located in church halls, and churches rely on the rental income they receive from food trucks and small batch bakers. While plentiful, church kitchens generally offer space and basic equipment use only, like commercial ovens, deep sinks, and industrial coolers.

Immigrants--New Americans-- who are learning a new culture and pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams need an extra level of guidance to launch their businesses; so do people who don’t have previous food handling experience. This influx created the demand that brought about two new commercial kitchens--one in the City of Buffalo and one in the City of Lockport--with added-value programs to help aspiring businesses thrive.

The [email protected] Market is a City of Buffalo initiative housed in the historic Broadway Market and managed by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative. This three-way collaboration meets several needs and creates a unique opportunity in the heart of the city. The collaboration will spur the economy, both short term and over time; it meets a growing need for licensed food preparation spaces and instructive programs; and it utilizes year-round space within the Broadway Market.

“A commercial kitchen has been on the city’s radar for about three years,” said Kathleen Peterson from the Broadway Market management office. The initiative is funded in part with support from the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and General Mills. “The whole premise was based on small business development,” Peterson explained. “People who may be interested in starting a restaurant or a food truck or food-based business often don’t have the money to do this.”

The collaboration feeds a need that has been simmering for a while, as more people are turning to culinary and hospitality careers that fall outside established enterprises.

“The West Side Bazaar is where we incubate our restaurants,” said Bob Doyle, WEDI’s community development director. “The [email protected] on the East Side is another place for people who are new to the food preparation industry and who may need a more affordable kitchen to do their prep work.”

New York state laws prevail over some aspects of food preparation and sales, while the responsibility for inspecting and licensing commercial kitchens falls to Erie County’s health department. The [email protected]he Market was built to meet the county’s requirements for equipment and physical space. Having an inspected and licensed commercial kitchen is a necessity for all food preparers, whether the products are prepared for sale in a food truck or are being bottled for same in local retailers or farmer’s markets.

The [email protected] Market is anticipated to open later this spring. Doyle said interest is very high, and while WEDI is still in the process of hiring a part-time manager for the facility, entrepreneurs are already inquiring about renting space. Plans are for the space to be very flexible to meet different levels of needs amongst its users.

“Users will pay rent based on when they’re there,” Doyle said. “For instance, if you’re making and bottling salsa, you may need the space once a month. If you’re running a food truck, you’ll be there every day.” Doyle anticipates having a broad mix of tenants to make sure the space is fully occupied for its six-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day hours of operation. WEDI will also vet all tenant applicants to make sure they have a business plan and insurance. Peterson said it will be an added benefit to the Market as well as to fledgling restaurant owners to have more food preparation happening under the site’s venerable roof: “New restaurants can have a ‘pop up’ restaurant in the market to test it,” she said.

Doyle says typically the consumers attracted by WEDI’s programs are very new to the industry and may be low income as they embark upon this career path. “There are a lot of barriers to employment when people first immigrate here,” Doyle said. “Many people we work with were professionals in their home country, and they’re learning a new language and culture here. Working in food service is a way to start on a pathway to success rather than pursue low-wage work. Sharing food and their culture is an easier way to break down some of these barriers.”

In Niagara County, the WNY Food Incubator will officially open its doors on May 18. It was developed as the result of a 2014 feasibility study to assess the needs and interests of farmers and the agricultural community. Amanda Henning, an agriculture and food systems educator from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, said there was immediate enthusiasm for the space. “We thought farmers would be interested in using it to produce food products for sale from high-value crops that can’t be stored year-round. We’re getting more interest from people who are interested in local food and who have a product they want to make and bring to market.”

Henning said the space has a stocked kitchen with a walk-in refrigerator, and two reach-in refrigerators, gas stove and oven, four convection ovens, a separate vegetable prep area, a commercial grade stand mixer, and plenty of pots and pans, knives, cutting boards, and utensils. Rent is modest to encourage maximum opportunity. The WNY Food Incubator will also host a series of workshops in May to inspire and educate foodie-preneurs. Topics include funding for a start-up, marketing, and planning for your business, and may be taken in a series or as a stand-alone session. Henning said vendors can also avail themselves of the services of the Cornell Food Venture Center to test and commercialize recipes and ensure that the product and its ingredients are tested and safe.

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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