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The edible microenterprise

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Food startups in the small batch economy

Forget silicon chips, search algorithms, and semiconductors — the most delicious startups today aren’t tech, they’re food startups! Instead of garages, the tinkering goes on in communal kitchens, with yummy results just waiting to be monetized.

Take a look around your nearest local market (especially the outdoors ones) and you’ll observe the artisan effect — the interest that people take in small food vendors who make a great product.

Brooklyn Flea is the trading floor of the food micro-enterprise market. A recent NYMag article highlighted this year’s newest small-operations vendors (among them, Elsa’s Empanadas, Saxelby Cheesemongers) and noted:

When the Brooklyn Flea launched a year ago on an asphalt schoolyard in Fort Greene, no one expected it to become a dining destination—never mind a springboard for the fledgling careers of the food vendors who gravitated there. The Flea, in fact, has become something of an incubator for micro-batch, locally made products, from pickles to ice pops.

Kathrine Gregory formalized this incubator concept in her communal kitchen operation in Long Island City, called Mi Kitchen is Su Kitchen. She owns three facilities, each one with its own specialty and equipment. Food manufacturers (bakers, quiche-makers, etc) come and rent a few shifts at a time, to get access to commercial equipment you couldn’t fit in a typical NYC apartment (nor would you necessarily want in your personal living space): a revolving rack oven, an 80-quart mixer.

“Food operation startups are capital-intensive,” says Kathrine. “If you’re going to grow a food business, you need a proper foundation, some kind of legal entity like a DBA or LLC or Inc. You need commercial space with licensing and the structure to grow your business.” In other words, once your home-made chili mango salsa recipe becomes a hit and you want to distribute outside of your friends and family, your home kitchen becomes a liability. You enter a professional space that requires inspection by insurance companies and the State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Kathrine was a guest on WNYC radio yesterday, when The Brian Lehrer show aired a segment called “Growing Together” — about the power of collaboration in today’s small businesses (listen here, 19 minutes).

Elsa's Empanadas

Elsa's Empanadas

Kathrine’s food incubator doesn’t target the “business people” who run food enterprises, it targets the “manufacturers” who actually make and craft the food products.

In her words, “It’s not the restaurateurs and it’s not the cafe owner, it is the brownie-maker and the pickler. This is the manufacturer who is going to sell their product to the Dean & Deluca’s, the cafe owners, the restaurant.”

Like baby chickens, young businesses are vulnerable. They need protection from the harsh world if they are to survive and grow. A business incubator provides that protection to young startups, according to another guest on the “Growing Together” segment — David Hochman, CEO of the Business Incubator Association of New York (whose logo is in fact a hatched egg).

David’s organization draws on national academic research on business incubation, citing an 80% survival rate of startups, 5 years after graduating from an incubation center — and a majority of those startups stay local, in the region where they started. This is encouraging news for regions that need to harness local entrepreneurial activity into a focal point, like an incubator, whether the industry is high-tech or new media or food-related.

While there is no typical business incubator space, Mi Kitchen is a literal cookie-cutter place, and proud of it.

making cookies at Mi Kitchen est Su Kitchen

making cookies at Mi Kitchen

Gabriele Stabile for NYT, When Cooks’ Dreams Outgrow Their Ovens


Written by @hellopanelo

April 17, 2009 at 9:44 am

Think global, act hyperlocal:

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Seen in NYC:

(Twitpic posted by Jack Cheng)

This is when an open-source GPS system could come in handy… especially if you’ve ever tried the steamed pork buns at Momofuku.

(Do you think star chef David Chang uses Google Latitude?)

This outdoor ad promotes a beta website for “Locals Only” — NBC’s attempt at hyperlocalism for the true NYC insider. It’s a familiar tune: big media giant attempts to be smaller, friendlier to the consumer, now that the consumer has many more options than the old giants of broadcast television.

John Wallace, president of NBC Local Media, confirmed:

“Our goal was to create a new type of user experience that’s less an extension of our TV stations and more of an online destination for the latest local news, information and entertainment. These sites are about putting consumers first and giving them the content they’re looking for from the best available sources.”

(link to press release here)

In the same release, Brian Buchwald, Senior Vice President of NBC Local Integrated Media, defines the target audience as Social Capitalists: “people who loved their cities, embrace change and have a huge appetite for local news and information.” It’s less a demographic than “a state of mind,” according to Buchwald, which I’m sure frustrates marketers who can’t run quant research on “states of mind” as accurately as they can demographics.

NBC joins the hyperlocal-experimenting ranks of the New York Times, who recently started “The Local”, a blog with a beat that’s only interesting to residents of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn. NYT’s attempt at a hyperlocal blog is criticized by some who see it as a useless intrusion of a big brand into a space already populated by grassroots residents of those neighborhoods.

I see it as a place where I can potentially see news about block-specific events that would never make any other news, but would satisfy my morbid curiosities about why there were two accidents two days in a row on the intersection in front of my apartment, for example. (Edith, I hope you’re not reading my blog, I don’t know where that runon sentence came from!)

The stuff of hyperlocal blogs: selling illegal turtles on Flatbush and Fulton.
(story and photo here)

I’m reminded of small-town newspaper clippings — from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama — sent to me as charmingly anecdotal jokes, reminders of what is “news” in small towns.

Written by @hellopanelo

April 12, 2009 at 3:31 pm