Co-Kitchen incubators: the options for food startups looking to scale up

Co-Kitchen incubators: the options for food startups looking to scale up

By
Louise Burfitt
March 29, 2021

🍽️ What is it?

  • Incubator kitchens are, in a nutshell, a blend of a shared commercial kitchen space and business training.
  • These types of incubators are currently experiencing rapid growth and innovation. 
  • They are also sometimes called culinary incubators, commissary kitchens or co-kitchen facilities. 
  • They’re a close cousin to food tech incubators, like Israel’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, which aim to accelerate innovation in food technology but don’t tend to offer on-site production facilities for startups like kitchen incubators do. 

🤔 Tell me more…

  • As a new food entrepreneur, starting a business from your own kitchen might seem like a good idea at first - a way to keep costs low and maximise efficiency. But many food startups quickly realise that this is not feasible due to lack of space, equipment, an inability to keep up as the company grows and to meet licensing, hygiene and certification requirements. 
  • That’s where culinary incubators come in, offering shared commercial kitchen space that meets all requirements - and almost always with a side of business mentorship and networking opportunities thrown in. And all this for a small subscription fee, or as part of a funding package.
  • Many kitchen incubators also provide support on other matters, like packaging, marketing, distribution and scaling up. 
  • The ideal kitchen incubator recruit? Those running food businesses that don’t interact directly with consumers at the place where they produce their foods. So we’re talking event caterers, CPG makers, wholesale businesses and food delivery services. 

💡How did it start? 

  • The concept of an incubator was born in the ‘60s, but only really came into public view in the 1980s as governments searched for new ways to boost their economies. 
  • The first incubators were not so different to those we know today, though of course less tech was involved. They offered new business owners mentorship on how to run a successful business and generally took a cut of their future earnings.
Credit: The Hatchery

🔍 How is it shaping up?

  • Kitchen incubators always include shared kitchen facilities, addressing a major startup need. Some, like Chicago's The Hatchery even offer what they term ‘move-in-ready’ commercial production space, so startups can get off to a running start. 
  • The majority provide equipment, cold storage and catering facilities that meet local food hygiene standards and regulatory requirements. Most also provide mentorship and business training.
  • One major trend in the space is the growth in incubator programmes that are designed to address social inequalities and represent chefs from marginalised communities or cuisines. Hot Bread Kitchen, La Cocina and The Hatchery are all examples of non-profit incubators with a social conscience.
  • Another trend? Major F&B companies getting in on the incubator action. Many large multinationals in the business are eager to be exposed to the latest, hyped products and services in the industry. By starting their own accelerator programmes, they can bring some of these trends right on site. Mondelez, Danone and Chobani have started their own programmes, but don’t offer on-site facilities. German supermarket Edeka, meanwhile, has its own incubator with an on-site media kitchen.
  • There’s also a shift towards specialist incubators, who are honing in on one particular segment. Plant-based commissary kitchens are a big one - like New Foods Kitchen in Portland, USA. And craft food is another - that’s the specialty of Cleveland Central Kitchen.

🤷‍♂️Why

  • Food incubators provide two things that can be in short supply for new startups: training and capital. 
  • The other main driver of this trend is the constant demand among food startups for low-cost kitchen space. Shared kitchens of commercial standard are a great deal cheaper than organising and paying for your own catering facility, something that feels impossible to most fledgling startups. 
  • Large, upfront investments are risky for new businesses, so payment models that allow hourly or monthly subscriptions to access catering space are helping to increase access to the infrastructure needed to get a food company off the ground.
  • And early-stage startups don’t just need counter and fridge space - many also need guidance on regulatory affairs, packaging, marketing and more. Culinary incubators provide all this and more under one roof. 
  • And what’s driving those who set up the incubators themselves? There are a variety of factors at play. For some, it’s a social drive to help others - that’s certainly the case for non-profit kitchen incubators like La Cocina (see case study below). 
  • For others, it’s about sharing expertise, and getting up close and personal to the latest emerging trends in the food startup universe.
  • And for big conglomerates launching their own incubators, it’s a chance to keep their fingers on the pulse, and potentially find new partners to collaborate with one the next big thing in food.
Credit: FoodHack Campus

👀 Who? (29 companies in this space)

📈 The figures

  • Kitchen incubators have really taken off in the USA in recent years. The lack of space in dense urban areas means that 60% of American co-kitchen facilities are in cities.  
  • By 2016, the number of food innovation hubs in the US had risen to around 200, a 50% increase in a three-year-period. And today the number will have risen further.
Credit: La Cocina

🌮 Case study: La Cocina, USA

  • La Cocina, based in San Francisco, is a well-known American, charitable incubator. 
  • The non-profit was founded in 2005 with the aim of accelerating the businesses and food careers of chefs and food entrepreneurs of colour from low-income backgrounds.
  • As well as providing shared kitchen facilities to its members, La Cocina helps to boost the visibility of food products developed at its HQ and provides opportunities for mentorship and future employment. 
  • The socially conscious incubator has propelled over 120 food and hospitality-associated businesses - and 55 of La Cocina’s alumni have opened their own restaurants! 
  • In the near future, the food accelerator will fling open the doors to America’s first ever women-led food hall. It plans to help support and promote female-led immigrant food businesses as well as to raise awareness of sexism in the food industry.
Credit: KitchenTown SF

🇺🇸 Case study: KitchenTown, USA

  • In California’s Bay Area, you’ll find KitchenTown, a commissary kitchen dedicated to supporting startups to scale up their production, test new recipes and bring products to life. 
  • The incubator’s Innovation Lab offers startups affordable product development services, including prototyping, testing and help with legal nutrition requirements. 
  • And the on-site commercial kitchens, complete with full equipment, production areas and a fulfilment warehouse, mean that for many, KitchenTown is the ideal place to get their product off the ground. Rental rates are tailored to each individual startup, with the aim of keeping the production space accessible and affordable.
  • In 2019, the innovation hub also opened a branch in Berlin - a city that’s increasingly become known for its abundance of startups. 
  • KitchenTown also offers a partnership programme that matches young upstarts with big-name brands for strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

👍The good

  • The benefits of incubators to food and beverage business owners are clear: low initial investment, opportunities for mentorship and network-building, and a pretty low risk compared to starting your own commercial kitchen. 
  • That low cost at the outset is really crucial to food startups - who are often not profitable during the early stages of their business. 
  • Kitchen incubators are a great networking opportunity, both with other startups sharing the same space, and the community of mentors and entrepreneurs that often come in tow to provide mentorship and ideas. 
  • Another bonus for startups: shared kitchen spaces are almost always fully kitted out with equipment and tools, and comply with the region’s regulatory requirements. So that’s one less thing for newbie businesses to fret about (and pay for!).
  • In some regions or US states, selling food out of a home kitchen is actually illegal - or blocked by numerous legal hurdles that can be difficult for a small business to scale. Shared co-kitchen facilities provide a welcome, hassle-free solution.

👎 The bad

  • Although there are obvious pros for food startups wanting to join an incubator, the art of running a food innovation hub is not easy to master. For most for-profit commissary kitchens, the best way to be profitable is to take a percentage of each company’s future revenue, but this is by no means guaranteed. 
  • For many incubators, there is a need to constantly be looking for new clients to fill gaps when companies move on and ensure their business remains profitable. Non-profit initiatives have a different set of challenges, including securing sufficient funding.
  • Joining an incubator can be an awesome, fulfilling experience, but it’s also not the only way to start a foodie business. The benefits are great, but for some, the model doesn’t make sense or fit their business type (e.g. dine-in restaurants).
  • Applying to join a food incubator is one thing, being accepted is another entirely. Many - especially the most well-funded and elite - programmes are highly selective. Being approved for membership is by no means guaranteed, though applying for the incubators best suited to your product is one way of improving your odds. 

💡The bottom line

  • For those running incubators themselves, the process can throw up hurdles linked to funding, and co-kitchen founders must have deep industry knowledge and networks to offer their members the best mentorship experience as well as experience maintaining commercial kitchen space.
  • Yet with space hard to come by and costs higher than ever, culinary incubators can be a practical solution for certain new food and beverage businesses - providing so much more than just a shared kitchen in the process.
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🍽️ What is it?

  • Incubator kitchens are, in a nutshell, a blend of a shared commercial kitchen space and business training.
  • These types of incubators are currently experiencing rapid growth and innovation. 
  • They are also sometimes called culinary incubators, commissary kitchens or co-kitchen facilities. 
  • They’re a close cousin to food tech incubators, like Israel’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, which aim to accelerate innovation in food technology but don’t tend to offer on-site production facilities for startups like kitchen incubators do. 

🤔 Tell me more…

  • As a new food entrepreneur, starting a business from your own kitchen might seem like a good idea at first - a way to keep costs low and maximise efficiency. But many food startups quickly realise that this is not feasible due to lack of space, equipment, an inability to keep up as the company grows and to meet licensing, hygiene and certification requirements. 
  • That’s where culinary incubators come in, offering shared commercial kitchen space that meets all requirements - and almost always with a side of business mentorship and networking opportunities thrown in. And all this for a small subscription fee, or as part of a funding package.
  • Many kitchen incubators also provide support on other matters, like packaging, marketing, distribution and scaling up. 
  • The ideal kitchen incubator recruit? Those running food businesses that don’t interact directly with consumers at the place where they produce their foods. So we’re talking event caterers, CPG makers, wholesale businesses and food delivery services. 

💡How did it start? 

  • The concept of an incubator was born in the ‘60s, but only really came into public view in the 1980s as governments searched for new ways to boost their economies. 
  • The first incubators were not so different to those we know today, though of course less tech was involved. They offered new business owners mentorship on how to run a successful business and generally took a cut of their future earnings.
Credit: The Hatchery

🔍 How is it shaping up?

  • Kitchen incubators always include shared kitchen facilities, addressing a major startup need. Some, like Chicago's The Hatchery even offer what they term ‘move-in-ready’ commercial production space, so startups can get off to a running start. 
  • The majority provide equipment, cold storage and catering facilities that meet local food hygiene standards and regulatory requirements. Most also provide mentorship and business training.
  • One major trend in the space is the growth in incubator programmes that are designed to address social inequalities and represent chefs from marginalised communities or cuisines. Hot Bread Kitchen, La Cocina and The Hatchery are all examples of non-profit incubators with a social conscience.
  • Another trend? Major F&B companies getting in on the incubator action. Many large multinationals in the business are eager to be exposed to the latest, hyped products and services in the industry. By starting their own accelerator programmes, they can bring some of these trends right on site. Mondelez, Danone and Chobani have started their own programmes, but don’t offer on-site facilities. German supermarket Edeka, meanwhile, has its own incubator with an on-site media kitchen.
  • There’s also a shift towards specialist incubators, who are honing in on one particular segment. Plant-based commissary kitchens are a big one - like New Foods Kitchen in Portland, USA. And craft food is another - that’s the specialty of Cleveland Central Kitchen.

🤷‍♂️Why

  • Food incubators provide two things that can be in short supply for new startups: training and capital. 
  • The other main driver of this trend is the constant demand among food startups for low-cost kitchen space. Shared kitchens of commercial standard are a great deal cheaper than organising and paying for your own catering facility, something that feels impossible to most fledgling startups. 
  • Large, upfront investments are risky for new businesses, so payment models that allow hourly or monthly subscriptions to access catering space are helping to increase access to the infrastructure needed to get a food company off the ground.
  • And early-stage startups don’t just need counter and fridge space - many also need guidance on regulatory affairs, packaging, marketing and more. Culinary incubators provide all this and more under one roof. 
  • And what’s driving those who set up the incubators themselves? There are a variety of factors at play. For some, it’s a social drive to help others - that’s certainly the case for non-profit kitchen incubators like La Cocina (see case study below). 
  • For others, it’s about sharing expertise, and getting up close and personal to the latest emerging trends in the food startup universe.
  • And for big conglomerates launching their own incubators, it’s a chance to keep their fingers on the pulse, and potentially find new partners to collaborate with one the next big thing in food.
Credit: FoodHack Campus

👀 Who? (29 companies in this space)

📈 The figures

  • Kitchen incubators have really taken off in the USA in recent years. The lack of space in dense urban areas means that 60% of American co-kitchen facilities are in cities.  
  • By 2016, the number of food innovation hubs in the US had risen to around 200, a 50% increase in a three-year-period. And today the number will have risen further.
Credit: La Cocina

🌮 Case study: La Cocina, USA

  • La Cocina, based in San Francisco, is a well-known American, charitable incubator. 
  • The non-profit was founded in 2005 with the aim of accelerating the businesses and food careers of chefs and food entrepreneurs of colour from low-income backgrounds.
  • As well as providing shared kitchen facilities to its members, La Cocina helps to boost the visibility of food products developed at its HQ and provides opportunities for mentorship and future employment. 
  • The socially conscious incubator has propelled over 120 food and hospitality-associated businesses - and 55 of La Cocina’s alumni have opened their own restaurants! 
  • In the near future, the food accelerator will fling open the doors to America’s first ever women-led food hall. It plans to help support and promote female-led immigrant food businesses as well as to raise awareness of sexism in the food industry.
Credit: KitchenTown SF

🇺🇸 Case study: KitchenTown, USA

  • In California’s Bay Area, you’ll find KitchenTown, a commissary kitchen dedicated to supporting startups to scale up their production, test new recipes and bring products to life. 
  • The incubator’s Innovation Lab offers startups affordable product development services, including prototyping, testing and help with legal nutrition requirements. 
  • And the on-site commercial kitchens, complete with full equipment, production areas and a fulfilment warehouse, mean that for many, KitchenTown is the ideal place to get their product off the ground. Rental rates are tailored to each individual startup, with the aim of keeping the production space accessible and affordable.
  • In 2019, the innovation hub also opened a branch in Berlin - a city that’s increasingly become known for its abundance of startups. 
  • KitchenTown also offers a partnership programme that matches young upstarts with big-name brands for strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

👍The good

  • The benefits of incubators to food and beverage business owners are clear: low initial investment, opportunities for mentorship and network-building, and a pretty low risk compared to starting your own commercial kitchen. 
  • That low cost at the outset is really crucial to food startups - who are often not profitable during the early stages of their business. 
  • Kitchen incubators are a great networking opportunity, both with other startups sharing the same space, and the community of mentors and entrepreneurs that often come in tow to provide mentorship and ideas. 
  • Another bonus for startups: shared kitchen spaces are almost always fully kitted out with equipment and tools, and comply with the region’s regulatory requirements. So that’s one less thing for newbie businesses to fret about (and pay for!).
  • In some regions or US states, selling food out of a home kitchen is actually illegal - or blocked by numerous legal hurdles that can be difficult for a small business to scale. Shared co-kitchen facilities provide a welcome, hassle-free solution.

👎 The bad

  • Although there are obvious pros for food startups wanting to join an incubator, the art of running a food innovation hub is not easy to master. For most for-profit commissary kitchens, the best way to be profitable is to take a percentage of each company’s future revenue, but this is by no means guaranteed. 
  • For many incubators, there is a need to constantly be looking for new clients to fill gaps when companies move on and ensure their business remains profitable. Non-profit initiatives have a different set of challenges, including securing sufficient funding.
  • Joining an incubator can be an awesome, fulfilling experience, but it’s also not the only way to start a foodie business. The benefits are great, but for some, the model doesn’t make sense or fit their business type (e.g. dine-in restaurants).
  • Applying to join a food incubator is one thing, being accepted is another entirely. Many - especially the most well-funded and elite - programmes are highly selective. Being approved for membership is by no means guaranteed, though applying for the incubators best suited to your product is one way of improving your odds. 

💡The bottom line

  • For those running incubators themselves, the process can throw up hurdles linked to funding, and co-kitchen founders must have deep industry knowledge and networks to offer their members the best mentorship experience as well as experience maintaining commercial kitchen space.
  • Yet with space hard to come by and costs higher than ever, culinary incubators can be a practical solution for certain new food and beverage businesses - providing so much more than just a shared kitchen in the process.

🍽️ What is it?

  • Incubator kitchens are, in a nutshell, a blend of a shared commercial kitchen space and business training.
  • These types of incubators are currently experiencing rapid growth and innovation. 
  • They are also sometimes called culinary incubators, commissary kitchens or co-kitchen facilities. 
  • They’re a close cousin to food tech incubators, like Israel’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, which aim to accelerate innovation in food technology but don’t tend to offer on-site production facilities for startups like kitchen incubators do. 

🤔 Tell me more…

  • As a new food entrepreneur, starting a business from your own kitchen might seem like a good idea at first - a way to keep costs low and maximise efficiency. But many food startups quickly realise that this is not feasible due to lack of space, equipment, an inability to keep up as the company grows and to meet licensing, hygiene and certification requirements. 
  • That’s where culinary incubators come in, offering shared commercial kitchen space that meets all requirements - and almost always with a side of business mentorship and networking opportunities thrown in. And all this for a small subscription fee, or as part of a funding package.
  • Many kitchen incubators also provide support on other matters, like packaging, marketing, distribution and scaling up. 
  • The ideal kitchen incubator recruit? Those running food businesses that don’t interact directly with consumers at the place where they produce their foods. So we’re talking event caterers, CPG makers, wholesale businesses and food delivery services. 

💡How did it start? 

  • The concept of an incubator was born in the ‘60s, but only really came into public view in the 1980s as governments searched for new ways to boost their economies. 
  • The first incubators were not so different to those we know today, though of course less tech was involved. They offered new business owners mentorship on how to run a successful business and generally took a cut of their future earnings.
Credit: The Hatchery

🔍 How is it shaping up?

  • Kitchen incubators always include shared kitchen facilities, addressing a major startup need. Some, like Chicago's The Hatchery even offer what they term ‘move-in-ready’ commercial production space, so startups can get off to a running start. 
  • The majority provide equipment, cold storage and catering facilities that meet local food hygiene standards and regulatory requirements. Most also provide mentorship and business training.
  • One major trend in the space is the growth in incubator programmes that are designed to address social inequalities and represent chefs from marginalised communities or cuisines. Hot Bread Kitchen, La Cocina and The Hatchery are all examples of non-profit incubators with a social conscience.
  • Another trend? Major F&B companies getting in on the incubator action. Many large multinationals in the business are eager to be exposed to the latest, hyped products and services in the industry. By starting their own accelerator programmes, they can bring some of these trends right on site. Mondelez, Danone and Chobani have started their own programmes, but don’t offer on-site facilities. German supermarket Edeka, meanwhile, has its own incubator with an on-site media kitchen.
  • There’s also a shift towards specialist incubators, who are honing in on one particular segment. Plant-based commissary kitchens are a big one - like New Foods Kitchen in Portland, USA. And craft food is another - that’s the specialty of Cleveland Central Kitchen.

🤷‍♂️Why

  • Food incubators provide two things that can be in short supply for new startups: training and capital. 
  • The other main driver of this trend is the constant demand among food startups for low-cost kitchen space. Shared kitchens of commercial standard are a great deal cheaper than organising and paying for your own catering facility, something that feels impossible to most fledgling startups. 
  • Large, upfront investments are risky for new businesses, so payment models that allow hourly or monthly subscriptions to access catering space are helping to increase access to the infrastructure needed to get a food company off the ground.
  • And early-stage startups don’t just need counter and fridge space - many also need guidance on regulatory affairs, packaging, marketing and more. Culinary incubators provide all this and more under one roof. 
  • And what’s driving those who set up the incubators themselves? There are a variety of factors at play. For some, it’s a social drive to help others - that’s certainly the case for non-profit kitchen incubators like La Cocina (see case study below). 
  • For others, it’s about sharing expertise, and getting up close and personal to the latest emerging trends in the food startup universe.
  • And for big conglomerates launching their own incubators, it’s a chance to keep their fingers on the pulse, and potentially find new partners to collaborate with one the next big thing in food.
Credit: FoodHack Campus

👀 Who? (29 companies in this space)

📈 The figures

  • Kitchen incubators have really taken off in the USA in recent years. The lack of space in dense urban areas means that 60% of American co-kitchen facilities are in cities.  
  • By 2016, the number of food innovation hubs in the US had risen to around 200, a 50% increase in a three-year-period. And today the number will have risen further.
Credit: La Cocina

🌮 Case study: La Cocina, USA

  • La Cocina, based in San Francisco, is a well-known American, charitable incubator. 
  • The non-profit was founded in 2005 with the aim of accelerating the businesses and food careers of chefs and food entrepreneurs of colour from low-income backgrounds.
  • As well as providing shared kitchen facilities to its members, La Cocina helps to boost the visibility of food products developed at its HQ and provides opportunities for mentorship and future employment. 
  • The socially conscious incubator has propelled over 120 food and hospitality-associated businesses - and 55 of La Cocina’s alumni have opened their own restaurants! 
  • In the near future, the food accelerator will fling open the doors to America’s first ever women-led food hall. It plans to help support and promote female-led immigrant food businesses as well as to raise awareness of sexism in the food industry.
Credit: KitchenTown SF

🇺🇸 Case study: KitchenTown, USA

  • In California’s Bay Area, you’ll find KitchenTown, a commissary kitchen dedicated to supporting startups to scale up their production, test new recipes and bring products to life. 
  • The incubator’s Innovation Lab offers startups affordable product development services, including prototyping, testing and help with legal nutrition requirements. 
  • And the on-site commercial kitchens, complete with full equipment, production areas and a fulfilment warehouse, mean that for many, KitchenTown is the ideal place to get their product off the ground. Rental rates are tailored to each individual startup, with the aim of keeping the production space accessible and affordable.
  • In 2019, the innovation hub also opened a branch in Berlin - a city that’s increasingly become known for its abundance of startups. 
  • KitchenTown also offers a partnership programme that matches young upstarts with big-name brands for strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

👍The good

  • The benefits of incubators to food and beverage business owners are clear: low initial investment, opportunities for mentorship and network-building, and a pretty low risk compared to starting your own commercial kitchen. 
  • That low cost at the outset is really crucial to food startups - who are often not profitable during the early stages of their business. 
  • Kitchen incubators are a great networking opportunity, both with other startups sharing the same space, and the community of mentors and entrepreneurs that often come in tow to provide mentorship and ideas. 
  • Another bonus for startups: shared kitchen spaces are almost always fully kitted out with equipment and tools, and comply with the region’s regulatory requirements. So that’s one less thing for newbie businesses to fret about (and pay for!).
  • In some regions or US states, selling food out of a home kitchen is actually illegal - or blocked by numerous legal hurdles that can be difficult for a small business to scale. Shared co-kitchen facilities provide a welcome, hassle-free solution.

👎 The bad

  • Although there are obvious pros for food startups wanting to join an incubator, the art of running a food innovation hub is not easy to master. For most for-profit commissary kitchens, the best way to be profitable is to take a percentage of each company’s future revenue, but this is by no means guaranteed. 
  • For many incubators, there is a need to constantly be looking for new clients to fill gaps when companies move on and ensure their business remains profitable. Non-profit initiatives have a different set of challenges, including securing sufficient funding.
  • Joining an incubator can be an awesome, fulfilling experience, but it’s also not the only way to start a foodie business. The benefits are great, but for some, the model doesn’t make sense or fit their business type (e.g. dine-in restaurants).
  • Applying to join a food incubator is one thing, being accepted is another entirely. Many - especially the most well-funded and elite - programmes are highly selective. Being approved for membership is by no means guaranteed, though applying for the incubators best suited to your product is one way of improving your odds. 

💡The bottom line

  • For those running incubators themselves, the process can throw up hurdles linked to funding, and co-kitchen founders must have deep industry knowledge and networks to offer their members the best mentorship experience as well as experience maintaining commercial kitchen space.
  • Yet with space hard to come by and costs higher than ever, culinary incubators can be a practical solution for certain new food and beverage businesses - providing so much more than just a shared kitchen in the process.

🍽️ What is it?

  • Incubator kitchens are, in a nutshell, a blend of a shared commercial kitchen space and business training.
  • These types of incubators are currently experiencing rapid growth and innovation. 
  • They are also sometimes called culinary incubators, commissary kitchens or co-kitchen facilities. 
  • They’re a close cousin to food tech incubators, like Israel’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, which aim to accelerate innovation in food technology but don’t tend to offer on-site production facilities for startups like kitchen incubators do. 

🤔 Tell me more…

  • As a new food entrepreneur, starting a business from your own kitchen might seem like a good idea at first - a way to keep costs low and maximise efficiency. But many food startups quickly realise that this is not feasible due to lack of space, equipment, an inability to keep up as the company grows and to meet licensing, hygiene and certification requirements. 
  • That’s where culinary incubators come in, offering shared commercial kitchen space that meets all requirements - and almost always with a side of business mentorship and networking opportunities thrown in. And all this for a small subscription fee, or as part of a funding package.
  • Many kitchen incubators also provide support on other matters, like packaging, marketing, distribution and scaling up. 
  • The ideal kitchen incubator recruit? Those running food businesses that don’t interact directly with consumers at the place where they produce their foods. So we’re talking event caterers, CPG makers, wholesale businesses and food delivery services. 

💡How did it start? 

  • The concept of an incubator was born in the ‘60s, but only really came into public view in the 1980s as governments searched for new ways to boost their economies. 
  • The first incubators were not so different to those we know today, though of course less tech was involved. They offered new business owners mentorship on how to run a successful business and generally took a cut of their future earnings.
Credit: The Hatchery

🔍 How is it shaping up?

  • Kitchen incubators always include shared kitchen facilities, addressing a major startup need. Some, like Chicago's The Hatchery even offer what they term ‘move-in-ready’ commercial production space, so startups can get off to a running start. 
  • The majority provide equipment, cold storage and catering facilities that meet local food hygiene standards and regulatory requirements. Most also provide mentorship and business training.
  • One major trend in the space is the growth in incubator programmes that are designed to address social inequalities and represent chefs from marginalised communities or cuisines. Hot Bread Kitchen, La Cocina and The Hatchery are all examples of non-profit incubators with a social conscience.
  • Another trend? Major F&B companies getting in on the incubator action. Many large multinationals in the business are eager to be exposed to the latest, hyped products and services in the industry. By starting their own accelerator programmes, they can bring some of these trends right on site. Mondelez, Danone and Chobani have started their own programmes, but don’t offer on-site facilities. German supermarket Edeka, meanwhile, has its own incubator with an on-site media kitchen.
  • There’s also a shift towards specialist incubators, who are honing in on one particular segment. Plant-based commissary kitchens are a big one - like New Foods Kitchen in Portland, USA. And craft food is another - that’s the specialty of Cleveland Central Kitchen.

🤷‍♂️Why

  • Food incubators provide two things that can be in short supply for new startups: training and capital. 
  • The other main driver of this trend is the constant demand among food startups for low-cost kitchen space. Shared kitchens of commercial standard are a great deal cheaper than organising and paying for your own catering facility, something that feels impossible to most fledgling startups. 
  • Large, upfront investments are risky for new businesses, so payment models that allow hourly or monthly subscriptions to access catering space are helping to increase access to the infrastructure needed to get a food company off the ground.
  • And early-stage startups don’t just need counter and fridge space - many also need guidance on regulatory affairs, packaging, marketing and more. Culinary incubators provide all this and more under one roof. 
  • And what’s driving those who set up the incubators themselves? There are a variety of factors at play. For some, it’s a social drive to help others - that’s certainly the case for non-profit kitchen incubators like La Cocina (see case study below). 
  • For others, it’s about sharing expertise, and getting up close and personal to the latest emerging trends in the food startup universe.
  • And for big conglomerates launching their own incubators, it’s a chance to keep their fingers on the pulse, and potentially find new partners to collaborate with one the next big thing in food.
Credit: FoodHack Campus

👀 Who? (29 companies in this space)

📈 The figures

  • Kitchen incubators have really taken off in the USA in recent years. The lack of space in dense urban areas means that 60% of American co-kitchen facilities are in cities.  
  • By 2016, the number of food innovation hubs in the US had risen to around 200, a 50% increase in a three-year-period. And today the number will have risen further.
Credit: La Cocina

🌮 Case study: La Cocina, USA

  • La Cocina, based in San Francisco, is a well-known American, charitable incubator. 
  • The non-profit was founded in 2005 with the aim of accelerating the businesses and food careers of chefs and food entrepreneurs of colour from low-income backgrounds.
  • As well as providing shared kitchen facilities to its members, La Cocina helps to boost the visibility of food products developed at its HQ and provides opportunities for mentorship and future employment. 
  • The socially conscious incubator has propelled over 120 food and hospitality-associated businesses - and 55 of La Cocina’s alumni have opened their own restaurants! 
  • In the near future, the food accelerator will fling open the doors to America’s first ever women-led food hall. It plans to help support and promote female-led immigrant food businesses as well as to raise awareness of sexism in the food industry.
Credit: KitchenTown SF

🇺🇸 Case study: KitchenTown, USA

  • In California’s Bay Area, you’ll find KitchenTown, a commissary kitchen dedicated to supporting startups to scale up their production, test new recipes and bring products to life. 
  • The incubator’s Innovation Lab offers startups affordable product development services, including prototyping, testing and help with legal nutrition requirements. 
  • And the on-site commercial kitchens, complete with full equipment, production areas and a fulfilment warehouse, mean that for many, KitchenTown is the ideal place to get their product off the ground. Rental rates are tailored to each individual startup, with the aim of keeping the production space accessible and affordable.
  • In 2019, the innovation hub also opened a branch in Berlin - a city that’s increasingly become known for its abundance of startups. 
  • KitchenTown also offers a partnership programme that matches young upstarts with big-name brands for strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

👍The good

  • The benefits of incubators to food and beverage business owners are clear: low initial investment, opportunities for mentorship and network-building, and a pretty low risk compared to starting your own commercial kitchen. 
  • That low cost at the outset is really crucial to food startups - who are often not profitable during the early stages of their business. 
  • Kitchen incubators are a great networking opportunity, both with other startups sharing the same space, and the community of mentors and entrepreneurs that often come in tow to provide mentorship and ideas. 
  • Another bonus for startups: shared kitchen spaces are almost always fully kitted out with equipment and tools, and comply with the region’s regulatory requirements. So that’s one less thing for newbie businesses to fret about (and pay for!).
  • In some regions or US states, selling food out of a home kitchen is actually illegal - or blocked by numerous legal hurdles that can be difficult for a small business to scale. Shared co-kitchen facilities provide a welcome, hassle-free solution.

👎 The bad

  • Although there are obvious pros for food startups wanting to join an incubator, the art of running a food innovation hub is not easy to master. For most for-profit commissary kitchens, the best way to be profitable is to take a percentage of each company’s future revenue, but this is by no means guaranteed. 
  • For many incubators, there is a need to constantly be looking for new clients to fill gaps when companies move on and ensure their business remains profitable. Non-profit initiatives have a different set of challenges, including securing sufficient funding.
  • Joining an incubator can be an awesome, fulfilling experience, but it’s also not the only way to start a foodie business. The benefits are great, but for some, the model doesn’t make sense or fit their business type (e.g. dine-in restaurants).
  • Applying to join a food incubator is one thing, being accepted is another entirely. Many - especially the most well-funded and elite - programmes are highly selective. Being approved for membership is by no means guaranteed, though applying for the incubators best suited to your product is one way of improving your odds. 

💡The bottom line

  • For those running incubators themselves, the process can throw up hurdles linked to funding, and co-kitchen founders must have deep industry knowledge and networks to offer their members the best mentorship experience as well as experience maintaining commercial kitchen space.
  • Yet with space hard to come by and costs higher than ever, culinary incubators can be a practical solution for certain new food and beverage businesses - providing so much more than just a shared kitchen in the process.
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