By Monica Hruby
What’s the vibe like when you cram 36 food startups into a warehouse off the 101 in San Mateo? A bit like the floor of the stock exchange: loud, busy, a little messy, but with a wall of ovens to add some literal heat to the shouting and crashing of dishes. This is KitchenTown, the Peninsula’s food industry incubator that in three years has grown to include a cafe and restaurant, wonky classes on everything from tiny peaches to hiring best practices and, since May, a second location in San Francisco.
KitchenTown’s auspicious start came with cookies. Co-founders Rusty Schwartz, a tech entrepreneur and executive, and Alberto Solis, a food entrepreneur and marketing executive, found space just off the 101 but to seal the deal agreed to adopt its existing tenant, Anna’s Danish Cookies, in business since 1938 (the sellers were reportedly pleased to see the company continue in the pair’s hands).
They adopted the incubator model widely used in technology but not so much in the food industry.
“There were already examples in tech, and some smaller food incubators like La Cocina in SF. The idea of KitchenTown was a larger facility that could accommodate bigger projects and larger-scale equipment,” says Schwartz.
A network and support, but no guarantee of funding
KitchenTown offers its startups a space to work, industry veterans to advise and mentor them and a network to lean on. Any food startup, whether it’s raised money from investors or is bootstrapping its way to growth, can apply. The San Francisco location focuses on educational programming and events to a broader community of food startup people not in KT’s incubator program.
Graduates include food delivery company Good Eggs, bacon-meets-popcorn snack company Chunky Pig and paleo health bar maker Mammoth Bar. ReGrained turns leftovers from beer brewing into oat bars, so-called food upcycling, and is in Kitchentown’s program now. Even the already-trendy chain Lemonade, which recently added a location in Palo Alto and has been a hit in Los Angeles since 2008, used KitchenTown’s facilities to try out concepts before opening in Burlingame.
“Rather than identifying the biggest money-making market, do delicious” — Ali Bouzari, KitchenTown consultant.
“Sometimes getting started and over the first hurdle is the most difficult time operationally for food entrepreneurs,” says Philip Saneski, ReGrained’s VP of Product. “Being familiar with many of these obstacles, the KitchenTown team either answers or knows an expert with answers to such early-stage questions — often organizing an event connecting everyone.”
Ali Bouzari, culinary scientist and a KitchenTown consultant, says that the incubator takes a different tack than many startup programs and emphasizes producing great food over hitting near-term financial goals.
Bouzari tells startups: “Rather than identifying the biggest money-making market, do delicious and properly insert it in the best niche, business-wise. Food is first, then taste shapes and influences the marketing aspects.”
Classes on tiny peaches and Instacart’s hiring process
Graduating from KitchenTown isn’t a guarantee of success, or financial backing, says co-founder Schwartz, but he notes the program supports companies with relationships and advice long after they’ve finished the formal program. “[Getting investment] usually depends on how innovative or compelling the product or service is, how they differentiate themselves, their story, how well they tell it, how strong a team they have, how much traction they have been able to get in the market.”
For us non-industry types, the incubator’s cafe serves fresh-baked pastries and empanadas as well as breakfast, lunch and brunch on weekends. Visitors can also shop the startups’ wares and KitchenTown hosts a wide range of classes on cooking and food science.
“KitchenTown wants to be a hub for innovations big and small” — Daniel Nevers, director of programming.
Co-founder Shwartz says the classes extend Kitchentown’s expertise and mission to the entire community of food entrepreneurs and people who care about where their food comes from. “It’s all an effort to be a part of changing the food system to support healthier, more diverse and sustainable food options.”
One example: A collaboration with Real Food Real Stories and Masumoto Family Farm, known for growing heirloom varieties of peaches, to promote the tiny (and overlooked, by consumers) Gold Dust variety. KitchenTown has done events with the Gold Dust and uses it in their cafe menu.
Other KT classes are a bit wonkier. Bouzari’s recent class on “scaling flavor” focused on developing recipes that can translate from the home kitchen to an industrial one without losing money and taste.
Upcoming events include a tour of restaurant supplier Pacific Gourmet’s warehouse and a seminar on hiring smart with an executive from grocery delivery business Instacart.
“KitchenTown wants to be a hub for innovations big and small that help to change the food landscape,” says Daniel Nevers, director of programming. “That might look like nurturing a small food company to introduce better-for-you snacks or hosting a dinner that draws attention to important food policy issues.”