From Food Trucks to Urban Farming – Boston’s Locally grown food startups on the rise.
Future Boston Alliance’s restaurant accelerator program aims to diversify the restaurant landscape
The food industry in Boston is evolving, and people like Future Boston Alliance co-founder Malia Lazu are the core ingredients in a new recipe to cook up more local-grown small businesses. Future Boston Alliance’s new restaurant accelerator program is just one of the efforts to add to the growing selection of food startups simmering around the city from restaurants to food trucks to food suppliers.
Local grown is a common term referring to localized growing and production of food, but in Boston, the term can also be applied to what most believe is the future of the city’s food industry — local small businesses. Major players, including many in city government, are working to bring about this future.
The City of Boston established the Office of Food Initiatives in 2010 with hopes to do a better job of connecting the city departments and resources in growing the local food economy. This office ties in advocacy — supporting access to healthy and affordable food — with economic strategies, such as expanding the city’s capacity to produce, distribute and consume local food. Additionally, the office has a directive to build a stronger local food economy through financing and backing of local food businesses.
The Office of Food Initiatives was launched under former Mayor Thomas Menino, but Mayor Marty Walsh has embraced the office’s efforts and, if anything, has turned up the heat on what was started.
The city has launched multiple initiatives to grow the local food industry, including advancing new legislation to support local agriculture and facilitating the establishment of more farmers markets within city limits. »
One of the biggest successes so far, since the city opened the Office of Food Initiatives, has been the growth of the food truck sector.
In 2011, the city put in place an ordinance opening the door for food trucks throughout the city, this allowed for permitting of food trucks, as well as a schedule for food truck locations throughout Boston.
It wasn’t impossible to have a food truck before, but there was no real structure in place and there were relatively few trucks on the street. Now, the city has a formalized process the food truck businesses can easily walk through and be off and cooking. The result is about 80 food trucks now operating in Boston — and over 60 food-truck small businesses.
“Within four years we have seen significant growth in this industry,” said Boston’s Interim Director of Food Initiatives Allison Rogers. “We want to support food trucks as much as possible — find new locations and help them get more trucks. We want to look at the existing program and see new opportunities.”
The food truck industry has exploded across the country into over a $1 billion sector in recent years. Boston still has some room to grow as many big cities have well over several hundred food trucks on their streets. With successful food trucks able to generate close to $300,000 in yearly revenue, though, the sector is viewed as very valuable to the growth of the overall food industry.
Rogers likes it as an easy step one for a food startup.
“It is a really good transition for someone that is interested in the food industry. They can start mobile and then move into an actual brick and mortar location,” she said.
In 2013, Boston flexed more food muscle when it adopted Article 89 into zoning law, which allows for ground-level and roof-top farming, as well as farm stands and farmers markets.
While farming is a challenging business, a number of companies, notably the Dorchester-based City Growers, have planted seeds in the city and are generating revenue by selling produce raised in Boston. Through city efforts and community land trust work by organizations such as Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, urban farming has taken root on many of the city’s vacant lots.
According to Rogers, the city has identified more than 50,000 square feet of city land that could possibly be used for urban agriculture.
Over the past decade, the number of farmers markets in Boston has increased from about a dozen to almost 30 and Rogers said the city will continue to support and look for new ways to ensure the success of this sector, as well.
A Pot to Stew In
While the city support for local-grown food startups is critical, a number of other entitites have stepped up as part of the recipe for success.
One is food startup incubator CommonWealth Kitchen (formerly Crop Circle Kitchen). With one kitchen facility in Dorchester and one in Jamaica Plain, CommonWealth Kitchen has over 40,000 square feet of cooking, prepping, storing and packaging space to offer a small food business looking to get off the ground. The organization started in Jamaica Plain with a 5,000 square foot facility, and last year opened a 36,000 square foot facility in Dorchester. Currently, about 45 different small food businesses use the facilities.
Its benefit to the industry is that a startup can rent the facility time it needs to get its food business done and the rest of the time focus on other aspects of the business without shouldering the burden of renting and building-out a full-time space. Businesses pay $35 an hour for kitchen time and low monthly costs for things such as dry storage space or freezer space. Also available are skilled kitchen staff to hire when needed. The facility also has parking available for food trucks to sit and recharge when not out on the streets.
“It creates a place for people to experiment with what they are doing and learn what is going to sell,” said CommonWealth Kitchen Executive Director Jen Faigel. “People can walk in the door from anywhere and be able to get started and figure it out and pull up their bootstraps and do it in an environment with a lot of support around them.”
In addition to kitchen facilities, CommonWealth Kitchen also offers help with the crucial ingredients that a startup food business needs to be successful — help with development of products, the production process, packaging and labeling, finance planning, legal needs and marketing strategies.
While food entrepreneurs usually have a strong passion for the food they are cooking or baking, that is not enough to create a business around, so CommonWealth Kitchen wants to help provide the rest.
“Once people are in the facility and working we do regular, different kinds of training with them,” Faigel said.
At the end of the day, what the startups want to get out of CommonWealth Kitchen is up to them, but in an industry with tight margins, little financing available and high real estate costs, most need all the help they can get. Typically, Faigel said, it takes business anywhere from one to six months to start selling products.
The variety of food types produced at CommonWealth Kitchen is impressive — from jerked chicken to juices to cookies — as is the diversity of the entrepreneurs. According to Faigel, 70 percent of the businesses are women-owned or minority-owned.
A handful of the business working out of CommonWealth kitchen will “graduate” each year and move out on their own into the food industry. About 20 businesses have already done so including McCrea’s Candies, Down Home Delivery & Catering and The Ancient Bakers.
Like the CommonWealth Kitchen, the Future Boston Alliance, an organization that supports the city’s progressive and cultural growth through a number of support programs, sees potential in local grown food businesses to the point that it has restructured its small business accelerator program to focus on food startups, restaurants in particular.
Its Accelerate Boston was designed for entrepreneurs looking to start businesses supporting the creative economy. The six-month program pairs participants with mentors to help with business plans and also provides education on business fundamentals.
Over its first three years, 65 businesses have gone through the accelerator. Now, the plan is for about 10 businesses to join the restaurant-focused accelerator next year.
Future Boston Alliance hangs its hat on diversity, and the accelerator program has reflected this. According to Executive Director Malia Lazu, 77 percent of the entrepreneurs that have taken part are people of color; 52 percent are women and 96 percent are under the age of 40. The belief is that they are dealing with some of Boston’s best and brightest who will power the diversity success of the future.
This has a lot to do with why Future Boston Alliance has turned to the restaurant business. Most business sectors need help increasing diversity, but in the restaurant business the situation is dire.
Lazu points out that, in Boston, there are only a couple African Americans who hold liquor licenses for restaurants or bars. And there doesn’t seem to be anything changing this on the horizon. She says there is a perception that people of color just can’t succeed in opening restaurants in the city.
As Boston continues to grow, Lazu sees this view as deadly in that it won’t lead to any diversity in the future either.
“It is important that an organization like Future Boston Alliance starts trying to create a model that will help independent restaurants of color be able to take advantage of all the development in the city,” she said. “The idea is finding what we need to play catch up on the restaurant segregation in the city. Rather than ignore it we are going to take it head on.”
For Lazu, a city like Boston, which has such large immigrant communities, should be on the forefront of diversity in the restaurant industry.
“We should be able to have every ethnicity and nationality of restaurants in the city. You should be able to eat the food of 135 different countries in the City of Boston because that is how many languages are spoken here,” Lazu said. “It would be beautiful to see that sort of restaurant economy emerge out of Boston.”
While she doesn’t expect the change to happen overnight, Future Boston Alliance believes its accelerator program can help. For now the plan is to run the restaurant-focused version of the program for several years, and if it is having an impact on the growth of restaurant startups — which she expects it to — the organization will continue to run it.
The Main Ingredient
Cassandria Campbell, who founded Fresh Food Generation along with Jackson Renshaw, is an example of a food startup that is taking advantage of a lot of what Boston has to offer on the path to success.
Fresh Food Generation is a food truck and catering business that operates out of CommonWealth Kitchen, but Campbell also took part in the Future Boston Alliance accelerator program in 2012, and the business is cashing in on the opportunity from the city’s efforts to open up the food truck market.
There is much support in Boston for a young business, and Campbell is grateful.
Future Boston Alliance gave her the courage and the business know-how to launch something that had only been a dream prior.
“It was really an amazing experience because there were all these entrepreneurs who were at different stages and we learned from each other,” Campbell said.
She moved from the accelerator program into CommonWealth Kitchen and again relishes the community of entrepreneurs she is exposed to there. Fresh Food Generation now works with several other food businesses, also operating at CommonWealth Kitchen, to offer their products through its food truck.
Kai Grant, of Fort Hill Jerk Chicken, has been working on her company’s chicken products at CommonWealth Kitchen since this past February. In addition to the kitchen facilities, Fort Hill Jerk Chicken takes advantage of startup business support as well.
“Problem-solving is crucial to any good business and the CommonWealth Kitchen assists on a daily basis helping to answer questions about operations, capital equipment, product development, business development and anything else an entrepreneur would need,” Grant said.
Heather Yunger, founder of Top Shelf Cookies, has been working out of CommonWealth Kitchen since September 2014. She loves the collaborative environment at the food incubator whether she is asking other food entrepreneurs for feedback on how new cookies taste or partnering with other food startups to sell her products.
“There are a lot of opportunities for us to help each other. We are in the unique position of being independent companies under one roof but we can combine our networks to get the word out about our products and companies,” Yunger said. “It’s a pretty amazing situation to be in as an entrepreneur.”
She said CommonWealth Kitchen is also helping her prep for a move into wholesaling, which requires different licenses than the retail business.
Without CommonWealth Kitchen she doubts her businesses would be where it is today.
“I launched out of CommonWealth Kitchen to ensure people liked what I was doing before extending too much cash,” she said. “On the day-to-day side, the community at CommonWealth Kitchen is nothing short of amazing.”
This article appears in our July issue of Banner Biz. Click here to view full issue: