Food entrepreneurs find a business home in Niles

Calling all specialty food entrepreneurs! 
 
Or, future entrepreneurs, culinary-curious information seekers, established restaurateurs and other talented foodies with a niche. There’s a place for you to call home in Niles – a licensed, beautifully equipped commercial kitchen that is designed to help launch and maintain a culinary business, to keep one rolling along, or to enhance the production, marketing and sales volume of edible creations that local chefs and individuals have already mastered.
 
This is the Niles DDA Main Street Entrepreneurial and Culinary Incubator, where locals have concocted candies, jams and jellies, marinades, spices and dip mixes, salsas, sauces and spreads--along with pancake and pudding mixes, granola and a variety of baked goods since August of 2012.
 
The venue, according to Lisa Croteau, Program manager for the Niles Downtown Development Authority, was created to give chefs of all types the chance to make their specialty foods in a licensed kitchen without the risks and expenditures that opening a retail business of their own would entail. It’s also a place where retailers and hopefuls come for support and to absorb knowledge they need about the business of doing business and to sharpen the skills they have.
 
"We also educate people--we offer lots of courses here," Croteau says. "Classes on business planning, finance, marketing and food production assistance, for example, so that they can make informed decisions before going out on their own or try to begin marketing products in bulk to see at the farmer’s market, online or at area retail shops."
 
Such support is a crucial slice of the entrepreneurial pie, according to Croteau.
 
"It’s not enough to just have the best cookie," she says. "It takes more than that to be successful. There’s nothing worse than someone who loses everything because they don’t have what it takes to manage all of the other aspects of running a business."
 
In partnership with building owner Leader Publications, the center is located on the second floor of 219 North 4th Street (in Downtown Niles), the former Pickwick Club, a private dining establishment that is furnished with everything needed to give food-based businesses the space and tools to create and store ingredients and products until they are transported to final destinations.  
 
"We are so lucky to have this space--it has all of the appliances, cookware, everything we needed to do this," Croteau says. "That's worth tens of thousands of dollars."
 
Courtesy of spacious breakout meeting spaces near the kitchen, the center is able to provide incubator space for new and existing food-based enterprises--including individuals who run their businesses from home as well as restaurant owners seeking the expertise to be able to produce and sell their own salad dressings sauces and other products. 
 
There are also training opportunities for district businesses owners (and individuals) working in many other arenas outside the culinary. Retired executives and current educators from many partnerships that include the Michigan State Extension Office, Lake Michigan College and Cornerstone Alliance, help make the diverse training sessions possible.
 
"Our ultimate goal is to make Niles, Michigan the regional hub for entrepreneurs," Croteau says. "By providing a place for them to learn the business of starting a business, we not only help entrepreneurs, we also help Niles, and the surrounding communities. We’re creating jobs and promoting economic development. And that makes for a healthier community." 
 
She is already seeing significant community progress as community members begin to take advantage of the opportunities at hand at the shared-use, commercially licensed kitchen at the Culinary Incubator and give their positive feedback.
 
"They have the chance to make their products in bulk here without building a commercial kitchen--that's a huge expense and this kitchen mitigates the risk while they learn everything it takes to succeed."
 
"I’m really proud that, in less than a year, we are making a difference in Niles," she says. "This is about a lot of things, including the local food movement. That is not just a fad; it’s here to stay and it means a lot to people. 
 
Kelle Barr is a freelance writer living in Portage, Mich.
 
Photos by Joseph Wiser.
 
To obtain a class schedule, to set up a tour at the Culinary Incubator, or for information on how to qualify to work in the center, call (269) 687-4332 or email neci@uncoverniles.com.
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