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Collaborative Cooking: Utah restaurant incubators serve up success

When we think of the word “startup,” we’re likely picturing a business that has developed and marketed some sleek new form of software, or perhaps an artist that has successfully created a line of fashion-forward clothing. As entrepreneurs have started to launch smaller companies with fewer resources, the idea of business incubators like Salt Lake’s Impact Hub and Church and State have become even more popular.

But what about the entrepreneurs whose startups involve cooking and serving delicious food? The process of opening a restaurant or bakery is starkly different form that of launching a tech or retail startup, and, despite their collaborative value, a business incubator just can’t accommodate the needs of a food-based startup.

Which is why the Wasatch Front has seen a surge in kitchen incubators like Spice Kitchen, Lemon and Sage, and Square Kitchen. These organizations function like other business incubators, but they also provide rentable prep and cooking space for local cooks, chefs and bakers. They’ve become lifesavers for those who are looking to earn a living off of their skills, but might not have the capital to invest in opening a restaurant or bakery themselves.

Most restaurants don’t last very long, largely due to an overwhelming mixture of time management, marketing and meeting state health requirements. The people and organizations behind these restaurant incubators are hoping to create an environment where culinary minds can try their hand at running a business without the huge financial risk.

New flavors in Utah

Of the different restaurant incubators in town, Spice Kitchen is Utah’s largest and most influential. Developed through a partnership between Salt Lake County and the International Rescue Committee, Spice Kitchen has created a safe, collaborative environment for anyone interested in the culinary arts. It’s become especially popular among Utah’s refugee communities, since food-based businesses are among the easiest for refugees to launch. Not only is this a low-risk way for refugees to start earning a living, but their knowledge of diverse recipes and cuisine serves to diversify Utah’s food culture.

Currently, Spice Kitchen is incubating culinary businesses that offer menus from Sudan, Syria, Burma and Somalia.

Like Spice Kitchen, Square Kitchen hopes to make opening a food-based business easier for anyone, but it’s particularly helpful to immigrants and refugees. It began as a collaboration between Ana Valdemoros and Tham Soekotjo, who met one another while studying at the University of Utah. Valdemoros started her food business as more of a hobby while she was studying city planning, but her experience with commissary kitchens made her seriously consider creating a place where cooks and bakers could meet, collaborate and learn more about getting a business off the ground.

“We’ve gotten a lot of help as students and entrepreneurs,” she says. “We want to do what we can to pay it forward. We want to provide a service that we didn’t have.”

Both Valdemoros and Soekotjo understand the difficulties behind succeeding in a new country. Valdemoros immigrated to the United States from Argentina 16 years ago, and Soekotjo came here from Indonesia in 2002.

“I couldn’t speak any English and I had a hard time adapting,” Soekotjo says. “Also, I came in the middle of the winter from a tropical country—that was its own challenge.”

Valdemoros and Soekotjo eventually met each other because of their shared interests and skills. “I met Ana at school, but we didn’t seriously start talking until she got hired as economic development director at NeighborWorks Salt Lake,” Soekotjo says.

Square Kitchen is currently entering its first phase of development, which is focused on providing resources and storage for its members. After potential members fill out a preliminary application on its website (squarekitchenslc.com), they will have access to cooking stations that include ovens, mixers, fryers and ranges. Depending on the type of food that they’ll be preparing, members can also rent storage space to accommodate their needs.

One of the biggest problems that Valdemoros encountered while renting commissary kitchen space was the lack of scheduling structure. “Square Kitchen is about easier usage,” she says. “You can go online, see if there’s a station available, reserve it and know that it will be ready when you need it.”

Square Kitchen has also made a point to offer legal resources to new businesses who might not know which channels to go through. “Our collaboration makes us more successful,” Soekotjo says. “Most people who go into the food business don’t know anything about all of this stuff—there are some regulations that are pretty complicated. We want to make a more standardized approach to everything.”

Learning while cooking

Further south, Shannon Källåker recently celebrated the grand opening of Lemon & Sage in Springville. The idea for a local restaurant incubator started when Källåker and her daughter were brainstorming ways to use their culinary skills to earn money for a foreign exchange program. “We started looking around, but really couldn’t rent a space around here. It seemed like a good idea to have someplace where people could go and cook—we have a lot of self-starters in Utah,” Källåker says.

Her husband, Kristian, who has an architecture degree, designed the two-story space that Lemon & Sage currently occupies. “It’s been a family affair,” Källåker says. “One of my teenage daughters designed our logo, and we all came up with the name.”

In addition to kitchen space, Lemon & Sage also offers educational space if members wish to expand their practice with cooking classes or other educational activities. For example, two of their current members, Jonathan Cagnacci and Stefania Battistini, use their company La Spiga Bakery to sell homemade pizza and focaccia and to advocate healthier cooking to their customers.

“We’re providing the space and encouraging collaboration between our coworkers,” Källåker says. “It’s really up to our members—we’ll help them sell whatever they want to sell.”

In addition to offering resources for up-and-coming culinary businesses in the Utah County area, Lemon & Sage is working to establish strong ties to its surrounding community. They have recently partnered with Snuck Farms in Pleasant Grove. “They’re just launching a CSA (community supported agriculture program), and we’ve agreed to be a pick-up spot for them,” Källåker says.

She also has plans to instate a Young Chefs program that will allow students to try their hands at working in the food industry. “They will be given the opportunity to come once a week to cook or bake whatever they want and sell it in our store,” she says. “Our hope is that this hands-on experience will be a good start for aspiring chefs and give them a better understanding of what it means to run their own business.”

Food has always had a profound power to bring people together, and these local restaurant incubators are helping to keep that power alive. By encouraging collaboration among their respective members and providing them with the resources they need to get started, these organizations continue to strengthen their individual communities. Not to mention the tasty fact that Utah’s culinary scene is more diverse than it’s ever been thanks to the wealth of talent that we have from all over the world.