reSET and Hands On Hartford have collaborated to create the Food Incubator & Mentorship Program, which supports Hartford-area entrepreneurs who want to launch and grow food-based businesses. reSET Program Director Shane Chase spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how the new program will add to Hartford’s entrepreneurial community.

NAN PRICE: In what ways does the food industry impact economic development in the Hartford region?

SHANE CHASE: A lot of cities, including Hartford, recognize the food industry is such an important factor of placemaking. It celebrates a city’s diversity through all kinds of culinary approaches. It’s also a good way to attract people throughout the region to new destination places to eat throughout the city.

From the economic development side, we’re using the incubator to examine what having a more vibrant food industry in Hartford would look like. Also, it’s important to not only help people share culinary skills they’ve learned as a culture or from their families, but to help them validate those skills and realize they can create a living doing something they love.

NAN: Why have a program with a specific focus on the food industry?

SHANE: Supporting entrepreneurs through our accelerator, we found there are many food-focused entrepreneurs who need access to specific resources and support. We’ve heard many anecdotes from people who have come through our doors and shown interest in the food incubator because, maybe they made a certain dish and their family or colleagues told them it’s so good, they should be selling it. Some may have organically grown, but then they start running into issues of how to actually become a business.

What certifications and licenses do you need and how do you get them? When you’re just trying to figure out your business, are there options that are less prohibitively expensive than signing a one- to two-year lease for a brick-and-mortar space?

What if I make a sauce I’m going to package; I’m not a caterer, I’m a food manufacturer because I’m going to sell this to someone who sells it to someone. It’s a completely different license and a completely different process. How would you know that?

So, our food incubator is designed to help earlier-stage food operators, those who are cooking in their own kitchens or doing some kind of catering. We want to provide them with the resources and educational support they need and provide opportunities to access space.

NAN: What other organizations are involved in the food incubator program?

SHANE: We’re just started a Culinary Collaborative, which includes Hands On Hartford, Forge City Works, Knox, Community Solutions – The North Hartford Partnership, Swift Factory, Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, and Parkville Market. Our goal is to think about how we can bring community around food. It’s not an exclusive, invite-only collaborative, but we’re starting small to figure that out.

The incubator is focused on providing support to help people shape their businesses. Through the Culinary Collaborative, we run the gamut of workforce development and accessing retail space. We’re leveraging what our programs can be collectively rather than individually.

NAN: Tell us more about the opportunities for food incubator participants to access space.

SHANE: Hands On Hartford is a great example of shared kitchen space, so that’s an obvious collaboration. Also, Forge City Works provides initial training and opportunities to cook in a commercial kitchen.

When Parkville Market opens, they plan to have some rotating stalls—like kiosks at a mall, but with confection ovens and kitchen equipment. So, rather renting kitchen space on a monthly basis, someone could come in for a week or a day and use one of those kiosks to test a new menu item. It’s a customer-facing opportunity to get the validation they need without being in a commercial kitchen or a brick-and-mortar space.

NAN: What’s next?

SHANE: The 2020 Food Incubator began on February 12. Our focus is to string together all the technical assistance support and connect that with real space where participants can start developing menu items and get in front of customers. Then, on the other end of the incubator, we’re looking into how we can work with the city to start filling some empty locations that could very well be brick-and-mortar restaurants.

We’re planning to hold a public event at the end of the Food Incubator, Wednesday April 29 from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. This will serve as a chance for the community to come and experience what our food entrepreneurs have been developing. Stay tuned for more details.

Find out more about the 2020 Food Incubator & Mentorship program