The popularity of the farm-to-table movement has consumers clamoring for fresh, locally grown products. In Wisconsin, that creates lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to launch food businesses. But with opportunity comes the reality of start-up costs, legal considerations, packaging, and food preparation space and skills.
Through the efforts of initiatives like the Food Enterprise and Economic Development (FEED) Kitchens in Madison, aspiring chocolatiers, food cart operators, salsa makers and others have a resource to help them succeed.
“As the local food movement took off, there was a lot of talk about how Madison could support the efforts of our local farmers by eliminating some of the obstacles to establishing a food business,” says Chris Brockel, FEED’s kitchen manager. “One of the biggest is the cost of establishing a commercial kitchen.”
In 2013, the Northside Planning Council of Madison jumped in to offer a solution by creating FEED Kitchens, a 5,400-square-foot space with five commercial kitchens and specialized equipment for baking, produce preparation and processing, deli prep, and meat processing. For the past six years, the facility has been available for rent so that food businesses, nonprofit organizations, vocational training programs and individuals have a legal place to prepare their food for sale to the public. Members have 24/7 access, schedule their time through an online calendar system, and receive orientation on all the equipment.
The three-person FEED Kitchens staff also provides business development assistance and matches members with agencies that provide other services to help them grow their businesses. And many of their members have grown – businesses like Madison Chocolate Company, Little Tibet, and Pickle Jar, all of which started in the FEED Kitchens before moving into Madison storefronts.
Brockel says FEED Kitchens members build more than businesses. They build camaraderie, too. “You get a lot of support from each other when you work in a shared space. You want to see everyone buy local, so you share mistakes and successes and help each other avoid pitfalls.”
There’s also a cultural benefit, he says, with members from Poland, Mexico, Pakistan and other countries all working in the same building. Food brings people together, after all.
“We’re lucky that the community recognized the need for a middle piece in the system – a place that could help people process their products so they could build their businesses. For enterprises of a certain size, we are that place.”
Stir It Up and Serve It
When a business outgrows the capacity of a shared kitchen, the state has other options to assist food entrepreneurs. Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point is one of them.
Kent Genthe, the facility’s director, explains that Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen focuses on helping existing small food enterprises, including family farms, grow their businesses. They provide professional contract food manufacturing services, called co-packing, to new food entrepreneurs, chefs and other food companies in a safe, certified processing facility.
The 10,000-square-foot facility is owned by Hodan Community Services, which supports people with disabilities. Services available at Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen include purchasing, food preparation, packaging, labeling, storage and logistics.
“We specialize in small-batch production to launch entrepreneurs into the market,” Genthe says. “Entrepreneurs work with us to scale up their products, and then my staff takes it from there, getting them into packages, creating nutritional labels and ensuring FDA compliance.”
Clients include makers of applesauce, marinades, drink mixes and barbecue sauce. “Our facility helps a lot of local food producers realize their dream of building a successful business,” Genthe says. “And that’s good for the farm-to-table movement and for the state of Wisconsin.”