Helping small food businesses succeed
CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK) in Dorchester is more than a shared kitchen space. The nonprofit is identifying and filling gaps in the local food system by providing access to education, technical assistance, equipment, and networks for local food entrepreneurs. The kitchen provides space to more than 50 food companies, more than 75 percent of which are owned by women and/or people of color, and which employ more than 140 people. “We started the shared kitchen to focus on economic development and helping people start and grow food companies,” says Jen Faigel, executive director. “To do that effectively, you have to be thinking about supply chain, education, access to capital, and other elements of food businesses. We can’t expect to change just one part of the system and see business success. We have to take a systems-based approach.”
CWK noticed that many people interested in starting a food business didn’t sufficiently understand the complexities of food-business management, so it began offering a Food Business 101 class in partnership with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “Running a successful food business requires more than just a great recipe or product. Business owners need to understand licensing, permitting, food safety, calculating margins, sourcing ingredients, marketing and branding, and managing distribution,” says Jen. The class also helps to promote equity in the food system: around 90 percent of the participants in the 13-week class are low income, women, people of color, and/or immigrants. CWK also provides continuing education for member businesses through customized workshops and mentoring.
For a majority of the member companies, finding buyers and distributors is the next big hurdle. CWK has served as an informal broker, connecting member companies with Whole Foods, Eataly, local specialty stores, distributors, universities, and hospitals. Harvard University has purchased bulk salsa from one of CWK’s member businesses, while Boston Children’s Hospital plans to purchase low-sodium tomato sauce from another member. CWK even did market research among shoppers at Whole Foods and discovered that customers were more likely to buy products such as hot sauce if they knew they were made locally.
CWK also works with farmers to divert surplus produce into value-added products to capture the full value of the harvest. In 2017, CWK turned 25 tons of pro- duce that would have gone into compost piles or been plowed under into more than 15,000 containers of tomato sauce, applesauce, pickles and pesto. To support this manufacturing work, CWK has received funding from the Massachusetts Food Ventures Program and the Massachusetts Urban Agriculture Capital Grant for equipment purchases. “We could not do this level of value-added processing affordably if we didn’t have the large-capacity equipment,” says Jen. “Think about the ripple effect—how many farmers and companies we were able to support and help scale through those grants.”