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Kitchen Incubator Assists Mahoning Valley Food Entrepreneurs - Akron Legal News

Entrepreneurs who live in the Mahoning Valley area and want to start a business in the technology or additive manufacturing (3D printing) arenas might seek help from the Youngstown Business Incubator. But for people looking to jumpstart a restaurant or other food company there is a different alternative, the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator.

Located at 907 Elm St. in Youngstown, the kitchen incubator got up and running in the fall of 2013 with the goal of lowering the cost of starting or expanding a local food business.

“We are a shared-use commercial kitchen with the equipment and tools that entrepreneurs need to make their food business dreams a reality,” said Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator Manager Thomas Phibbs.

“Whether you simply have a food business idea or are a restaurant owner or caterer, entrepreneurs can rent time and space in the incubator which is a fully licensed commercial kitchen, avoiding licensing and the barrier of purchasing the large commercial equipment necessary to expand.”

The incubator features convection ovens as well as cold, frozen and dry storage. Phibbs said in the future, the plan is to add a canning line and large commercial refrigeration and freezer units.

He said rental rates vary based on the equipment being used and discounts are available for those who qualify as low income. “We offer free microenterprise business coaching services that can help a new owner put together a business and/or marketing plan or address other common startup concerns,” said Phibbs.

“We even have a micro loan program, with loans of up to $2,500 available.

“We aim to help folks generate jobs working with food and help northeast Ohio build food security and promote economic development.”

The kitchen incubator was created by the nonprofit organization Common Wealth, Inc., which was founded over 25 years ago by Pat Rosenthal and others who organized a worker buyout of a Youngstown steel mill. The community development organization initially focused on employee-owned businesses and on developing and managing affordable housing. Since 2003, efforts have centered on rebuilding area food systems.

The organization’s food projects include the Northside Farmers Market and satellite locations, the Lake-to-River Food Cooperative, a member-owned cooperative of farmers with an online market, the kitchen incubator and the “30 Mile Meal,” a program adopted from Athens, Ohio that seeks to raise awareness about the availability of local food and create a network between local growers and buyers.

“My goal is to have everyone in the Mahoning Valley area have at least one healthy meal a week with food that is produced within 30 miles of where they live,” said Common Wealth founder Rosenthal.

She said the idea for the kitchen incubator dates back to the ‘90s. “I was working with ACEnet (The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks) and they had developed a kitchen incubator in Athens so I went down and saw what they were doing,” said Rosenthal. “Our sister organization, Common Wealth Revolving Loan Fund helped finance their startup construction and operations.

“I decided I wanted to put together an incubator right then,” said Rosenthal. “The opportunity to take specialty food entrepreneurs to market in a way that creates jobs and increases their income is incredible. The idea took time. We bought the building where the incubator is now housed in 2009 when it went to federal auction.”

In addition to creating jobs, Rosenthal said her organization is working to help solve the “food desert” problem that exists in Youngtown, whereby large portions of the city’s population do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy items because of the lack of grocery stores and farmers markets. “A co-op grocery store and a neighborhood café are slated to open this summer one block from Youngstown State University’s campus,” said Rosenthal.

“Seventy-four percent of Youngstown residents technically live in a food desert, where they are more than one mile away from a full-service grocery store,” said Liberty Merrill, land reuse director at the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC).

Launched in 2009, YNDC partners with the city of Youngstown and The Raymond John Wean Foundation to revitalize neighborhoods in the city.

In 2012, YNDC took the lead in securing a five-year $788,673 federal grant, which it split with Common Wealth.

YNDC put much of its portion toward improving its Iron Roots Urban Farm, a 1.7-acre working farm and training center on the south side of the city, while Common Wealth focused on the launch of the kitchen incubator.

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