Economic Development

Kitchen Incubator Seasons Success for Food Startups

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It’s the middle of the afternoon and the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator is a hive of activity: Chefs dice produce, cooks prepare barbecue and bakers set bread and pastries out ready for that day’s farmers market.

The scene was the same early in the day just as it will be repeated that evening.

“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” says Tom Phibbs, manager and business coach of the incubator. “It’s exciting to watch the project go from, when I started, maybe a handful of users, to yesterday being at capacity. We would have had to turn folks away. It’s been beautiful to see it unfold.”

In 2014, Phibbs and his wife, Katie, moved their business, The Lettuce People, into the kitchen incubator as one of its first clients. Since then, they’ve become tenants with him operating the incubator as she runs The Lettuce People from the basement below the kitchen.

A year ago, Common Wealth Inc. – parent of the incubator – and the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. were awarded a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to buy and install a canning line. Another recent addition is the blast freezer funded by a $60,000 grant.

“That will help us launch new frozen-food businesses out of here, as well as help large businesses that are looking to ship across the United States,” Phibbs says.

For clients, the incubator is available 24/7 with fees for use of the equipment, storage and counter space. With the goal of helping businesses get on their feet, the fees are low: $15 per hour for counters, $25 per hour for both counters and equipment and $25 per month for a rack of shelves or $7 for a single shelf.

The incubator is fully licensed, meaning that any food prepared there can be sold in stores.

To get started, businesses begin with a consultation meeting with Phibbs. They review business plans, ideas and where the client wants to go with his business. When Theresa Brine first arrived, she had been working on selling her foods at farmers markets.

Her first meeting with Phibbs covered revamping her brand and narrowing the range of foods she offered. The results of the coaching: a new company name and logo – Lil Red’s Popcorn Emporium – and a focus solely on gourmet flavored popcorn.

She’s started to move away from farmers markets to focus instead on getting into stores such as Catullo Prime Meats and Molnar Farms. Next, Brine wants to become a staple in area bars and pubs. Her popcorn is already featured at the newly opened bar and beer shop The Casual Pint in Boardman.

“I don’t know anything about marketing. That’s something that’s hard for a lot of small businesses: to get your name out there,” Brine says. “Going out to these businesses is the hard part. That’s what I’m not good at and that’s where Tom helps me out.”

There are many stories like Brine’s. Over the past three years, the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator has helped launch some 50 businesses and create 70 jobs. Within three months, Phibbs says, 15 more businesses will be added to that total. He’s also working with 35 companies as a consultant.

Beyond just the kitchen space, clients can take advantage of the food hub Common Wealth Inc. created that includes Cultivate: A Co-op Café, which has a few shelves of groceries, and the Northside Farmers Market. Incubator companies are provided opportunities to set their foods onto those shelves, used at the café or into a booth at the market.

“That lets them say, ‘I’m on the menu at a café or on the shelf at a grocery store,’ ” Phibbs says. “It helps them tell their story when they’re ready to go into the marketplace to sell their products.”

Three years removed from his first steps into the incubator, Phibbs is thankful for the opportunities it provided his business – space to work, media attention and networking among them – and relishes the chance to do the same for others.

“It’s a personal mission for me to help anybody I can. It’s an honor to help an entrepreneur,” he says. “I’ve been an entrepreneur for years and to have a resource like this is priceless.”

Pictured: Once a tenant of the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator, Tom Phibbs is now its manager.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.