Food processing is not always a sustainable side business for farmers.
In fact, finding processing facilities that are approved by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration can be challenging and time consuming.
In an effort to help producers and food businesses get started with processing, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) has worked for more than a dozen years to help establish a few shared-use commercial kitchens across the state that have been inspected and permitted, and which are available for public use. In 2004, Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Buncombe County was the first of these facilities to open. Since then, similar kitchens have opened in the state.
The Burgaw Incubator Kitchen in the southeastern part of the state is a shared-use commercial kitchen facility that provides health department and Department of Agriculture-approved kitchen space and equipment to specialty food makers. “We offset many of the start-up costs for culinary businesses,” says Rebekah Roth, planning administrator for the Town of Burgaw.
Approximately 15 years ago, Pender Economic Development Alliance was formed with funding from the Duke University Endowment to find out who in Pender County had been left behind economically, Roth says. “The alliance determined that the agricultural community, that had up until that time been dependent on tobacco, was one key group.”
The idea of an incubator kitchen first started taking hold as a way to use local agricultural commodities and to develop local food businesses to help Pender County gain the benefit of value-added processing. With the help of a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant and a major investment from the Town of Burgaw, Burgaw Incubator Kitchen opened in the historic Burgaw Depot in 2010, serving residents and surrounding counties.
“Use of commercial kitchen space is the primary service we provide,” Roth says. “We do provide general information regarding product liability insurance, registration with the FDA, and issues encountered by similar businesses, but we refer business questions to the Small Business Center of the local community college and regulatory questions to NCDA&CS.”
To become a tenant of the Burgaw kitchen, a business must submit an application, be interviewed by the kitchen manager to make sure its business can be accommodated, obtain product liability insurance, and attend kitchen orientation, Roth says.
“A lot of our demand is from fresh food producers, including caterers and food trucks, but our facility can only accommodate drop-off caterers. We also have provided space for baked goods production.”
Products that require long processing times are not the best for the facility because it rents space by the hour, and some processors find that co-bottlers are a better route. If the processor will be making a food product inspected by the NCDA&CS, Roth recommends talking to the department first to make sure they understand labeling, processing, packaging and shipping requirements.
“This type of facility supports the businesses that are necessary for the local food market,” she adds.
North Carolina has roughly 10 of these commercial kitchen spaces spread across the state, including Eastern Carolina Food Ventures in Warsaw, Anson Community Kitchen in Wadesboro, The Cookery in Durham, and the Carolina Commercial Kitchen in Charlotte.
A listing is available online at ncagr.gov/markets/agribiz/foodbiz.html.