Innovation

Boston Incubator Serves Opportunities to Diverse Food Businesses

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Bay State Milling Company,
Staff from CommonWealth Kitchen prepare HealthSense wheat cluster granola for the oven.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday. CommonWealth Kitchen, located in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, is already buzzing. There are six employees of the commissary kitchen, clad in white coats, gloves and hairnets moving by the large Hobart mixer, past the stark, stainless steel table and to the large pot, bubbling over an industrial burner.

Across the hall, there’s other prep work being done by a handful of the more than 50 food business entrepreneurs, who are part of the non-profit food incubator program. The organization provides commercial kitchens plus robust wraparound business support with a focus on women and people of color.

I’m here, along with two of my Bay State Milling colleagues, to work with the team in the commissary to produce Cinnamon Wheat Clusters made with HealthSenseTM High Fiber Wheat Flakes.  Katie Harris and Jay Freedman, who work out of the Rothwell GrainEssentials Center, are here to oversee production. By the end of the day, the staff will fill up 77 boxes with 2,000 bags of granola made with Bay State Milling high fiber wheat, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and cinnamon. I’m mostly here to shoot some photos and take it all in.

Developing HealthSense Granola

There is a lot to take in, the smells are the first thing that hit me. Oh, the delicious smells. There’s the cinnamon that’s coming from our in-process granola. There’s also some kind of meat, sizzling on an unseen grill. Later, I’ll smell cookies baking. More and more business owners will funnel in over the course of the day, chopping fresh vegetables, hand forming dumpling (in the case of Yang’s Dumplings) or tamales (with Mr Tamole).

The smells, flavors and potential of this place are infinite.

After bopping around the kitchen a bit, I catch up with CommonWealth Kitchen’s Director of Communications Bonnie Rosenbaum.

She lays out their mission to help people enter the food business that are traditional left out of the “economic boom.” Their typical member might have an idea for a food truck or packaged good, but need help with the realities of permitting, licensing, financing, labeling and marketing.

“On the other side we run this small-batch-manufacturing enterprise,” Bonnie explained, gesturing to the room where my colleagues are watching the third batch of ingredients get mixed together in a huge metal bowl.

When businesses outgrow the shared space, CommonWealth Kitchen helps with scaling up their recipes and provides a larger facility at an affordable price point.

Staff from CommonWealth Kitchen bag HealthSense wheat cluster granola in their commissary kitchen.

Staff from CommonWealth Kitchen bag HealthSense wheat cluster granola in their commissary kitchen.

The staff outside of the commissary is small, but mighty. There are the four chefs, the MBA and the pair of entrepreneurs. Then there’s Bonnie who helps with press, social media and sell sheets. Like any non-profit, volunteers are essential. They get free help from photographers, food stylists and accountants, among others. Local chefs also chip in, either with advice or mentorship.

At the time we’re having this conversation, there are 55 companies in the program. That number fluctuates as companies grow up and out. I ask Bonnie to classify the business mix of their current crop of companies.

“Oh my god, everything,” she says, explaining that new companies are constantly joining the kitchen. “Our idea is to get them going and eventually launch them into their own place.”

It’s fun to watch Bonnie’s mental rolodex flip. There’s the vegan bakery and the artisan veggie burgers. Let’s not forget the Austrian whey probiotic drink and the African peanut and sunbutter sauces. There are a bunch of caterers and a ton of food trucks.

“The diversity is crazy,” Bonnie said. “If you can think of it, it’s probably here.”

By giving access to capital and guidance through bureaucracy, the organization has helped the local food scene—from restaurants to grocery store shelves—be more representative of what the community is eating at home.

“You can do a million sandwich shops, but no one is going to do jerk chicken like Ernie from Jamaica Mi Hungry who’s been cooking since he was a kid with his mom back in Jamaica,” Bonnie told me.

Learn more about CommonWealth Kitchen, their members and their mission at commonwealthkitchen.org.