Cooking up dreams: Small business owners find space to flourish at Downtown Market incubator kitchen

As physicians, Monica Randles and Andrew Maternowski have a deep understanding of what it means to be healthy  — and the critical role food plays in your well-being. Longtime locavores who would regularly support area farms, the couple realized, after they and their two children became vegetarians, that while they could find plenty of healthy, West Michigan-grown produce, they couldn’t find the same for locally made substitute meats.

“We started looking at alternative meat options for vegetarian/vegan eating, and it became obvious to us there weren’t really super healthy options,” Randles says. “There were a lot of chemicals or processed products. We wanted to see what we could make for ourselves that are healthy and delicious, and we ended up making vegan sausages using walnuts, hazelnuts, brown rice, and quinoa. Any sausage is really a vehicle for seasoning, so we could have a hot Italian sausage, a breakfast sausage, which are super healthy and very flavorful.”

The couple started working on their recipe around 2010, and in July 2014 they founded Nutcase Vegan Meats, at which time they knew they needed a commercial kitchen to continue making their line of sausages. A friend recommended connecting with the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, which provides space, cooking and packaging equipment, and business development assistance for food start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“They really helped us,” Randles says of the kitchen, which now houses 21 businesses, ranging from Bloom Ferments, which makes kombucha drinks, and coffee company Prospectors Cold Brew to D’Arts Donuts and soul food spot Southern Smoke. “They’ve been really critical with education and mentoring for the business. We didn’t know what to do in terms of hiring employees or looking for additional staff and support and licensing. They’ve been a big source of information.”

It’s those kind of reviews that Whitney Lubbers, who manages the incubator kitchen, is thrilled to hear. After all, she says, in a city awash with an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s crucial that small businesses owners with limited funds are able to access space to flourish.

“A place like this is so important,” Lubbers says as she sits in her office overlooking the kitchen, an expansive sea of stainless steel equipment that’s used practically around the clock by businesses for everything from frying donuts to slapping labels on bottles. “If they’re not successful here, in the kitchen, they’re not losing everything they have" because they don’t have to invest in an often incredibly expensive brick and mortar site.

One of the few incubator kitchens in West Michigan, the space at the Downtown Market allows businesses to work with Lubbers to make sure they have a viable business plan, and they have immediate access to the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which helps owners on a range of topics, including the county and state licensing processes.

“They’ll really walk you through the process; you can take the ServSafe course so you understand food handling and regulation,” says Randles, whose business now sells their vegan sausages at about a dozen places throughout the state, including at spots like Kingma’s Market, Nourish Organic Market, and Horrocks Market in Grand Rapids. “The incubator kitchen helps you understand the process well prior to having a state inspection. We can’t say enough good things about the incubator kitchen; we wouldn’t be where we are now without them.”

Many of those who go to the incubator kitchen do so based on recommendations, as Randles did, and the space has grown from housing six businesses when the Downtown Market first opened in the summer of 2013 to the current 21 businesses. For Lubbers, that’s indicative of  a need for shared commercial space for entrepreneurs. The kitchen has five distinct areas: pastry, packaging, catering, production, and prep, and the hourly rates to use these spaces vary on a tiered system, depending on what equipment one needs to access and financial need (there are three choices: market rate, support rate and scholarship rate). Plus, the market offers owners access during “non-peak hours” (10pm-6am), which also makes the price drop.

“It was important to us to offer this as soon as the Market opened, to have something that would support small businesses in the city,” Lubbers says. “We saw a need to foster this entrepreneurship; we’re able to accommodate a lot here.”

Of the businesses that have worked out of the kitchen, one, Cultured Love, has “graduated,” or grown out of the space, and two others, Bloom Ferments and Prospectors, are soon poised to leave. While at the incubator kitchen, Prospectors inked a deal with Meijer that places their product in more than 200 stores throughout Michigan and the Midwest.

Sydney Dennison, who runs Masen James Bakery with her mother, Clarice Dennison, and works out of the incubator kitchen, says the communal space has given them a chance to live out a dream.

“My mom has always had a passion for baking,” Dennison says. “For her whole life, people would say, ‘Oh, you won’t make any money that way,’ and so she went and got her Master’s degree in business leadership and works at a hospital now. But every since I was young, I knew she had a talent for baking, and I wanted her to do what she loves. You only have one life; you may as well do what you want. So, I said, ‘Show me how to bake; show me how to do this.”

Dennison notes that it’s not just having the space itself that helps, but that owners have a chance to share words of wisdom with other entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great way to connect,” she says. “We’re sharing the kitchen with a ton of different businesses, and people do collaborations with other businesses all the time. We’ve done things with Prospectors. We feed off of each other; we give each other great exposure.”

For more information about the incubator kitchen, visit its website here.
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