Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
When Judy Sarkozy started her Kalamazoo bakery 44 years ago she wanted to sell the baked goods she knew and loved as she grew up in the Detroit area. But she says she didn’t know anything about starting a business.
Although the costs for equipment and a location rise, she says, “The food business is cheap to get into. So there has not been a lot of support” for helping them get off the ground.
She swoons at the idea of the Can-Do Kitchen, a small business incubator that was started in Kalamazoo in 2008. If it had existed in 1978, Sarkozy says she would have had help with product packaging and labeling, shipping, and scaling. And she would have had coaching on how to interact with regulatory and government agencies.
”If there had been a Can-Do Kitchen, I would have saved a whole lot of money,” she says with a laugh. “It would have been so much easier to start. I couldn’t find any place that could help me; that knew about tiny food businesses.”
Jill Chestang, owner of Perfect Blend Coffee, says Can-Do Kitchen has supported her business by providing business workshops, vendor opportunities and contacts.
The Can-Do Kitchen, which has long focused on mentoring, supporting, and providing working space for new food-based businesses, is in the process of expanding to help entrepreneurs of all kinds. It is re-branding to become Can-Do Kalamazoo.
“There are a lot of entrepreneurs in our community that are NOT food-based,” says Lucy Dilley, executive director of Can-Do Kitchen / Can-Do Kalamazoo. “They need some coordinated support. We’ve got a lot of small business helpers, and counselors, and resources in town. And we’ve all agreed that being more coordinated, being more of a hub in one physical space as much as possible is going to help break down some of the silos. So entrepreneurs and business owners know where they can go to get support and have access to resources.”
Partners in the coordinated effort include the Small Business Development and Technology Center, SCORE, the Economic Development Department of the City of Kalamazoo, Southwest Michigan First, Sisters in Business, Black Wall Street Kalamazoo, and Room 35 (a firm that strives to have small businesses grow).
Can-Do is more than 80 percent of the way to meeting a $650,000 capital campaign
goal it announced last year. The money will allow the 14-year-old nonprofit to relocate from 2,200 square feet of space (including a shared catering kitchen, staff offices, and some storage space) at 3501 Lake St. and expand into about 10,000 square feet at 519 S. Park St., which will include a commercial kitchen, food preparation area, and flexible space for events and other purposes.
“A lot of people really don’t even know that we’re out here,” Dilley says of the space her organization has been using since 2016 on Lake Street near Sprinkle Road. “So we’re really excited to get much more centralized, closer to downtown.”
Sarkozy, who is honorary chairperson of Can-Do Kitchen’s capital campaign, says the government considers a small business one that makes less than $1 million in a year in revenue.
Can-Do Kitchen is a 14-year-old nonprofit organization that leases space and provides support to help local food entrepreneurs. It is in the process of expanding to help entrepreneurs of all kinds.
“On my first day, I did $21.85,” she says, with a laugh. “That was a Saturday. The next Monday, I didn’t do that much.”
So, after much trial and error, and after many business mistakes (initially, she didn’t know how much she needed to pay the IRS, for instance), she is glad to see a project that understands really small businesses and is set to provide help to more of them.
Can-Do Kitchen regularly has 15 to 25 users who create packaged food products to sell online or in stores, beverage makers, farmers market vendors who do food preparation, and catering businesses that do meal and ready-to-eat food preparation. Depending on the style of food work they do (and what they are licensed to do), each business operator pays anywhere from $8 to $17 per hour to use the kitchen.
“2020 was pretty slow for people wanting to get going in the kitchen,” Dilley says. “But we rebounded back pretty well last year.”
At 519 S. Park St., Can-Do will have a long-term lease on a large commercial kitchen and food preparation space that is not being used by the culinary arts program of KPEP (the shortened name for what was the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program). Can-Do will renovate the space inside a 22,000-square-foot building that is adjacent to KPEP’s Walnut & Park coffee shop.
That work is to begin in the spring and, if all goes well, be completed midway through the year.
The Can-Do Kitchen will become Can-Do Kalamazoo as it relocates this year from 2,200 square feet of space on Lake Street to about 10,000 square feet of space on South Park Street. The layout of the larger space is shown here.
As the program expands to help entrepreneurs of all kinds, Dilley says, “One (type of business) that pops up pretty readily for us is health and wellness products -- lip balms, creams or things like that, which are kind of related to food but they really aren’t. We’re ready to help those folks.”
She says, “We anticipate service-based businesses, technology-based businesses. There’s a lot of interest in retail. Some folks design clothing or print clothing that they want to be able to sell retail.”
She also anticipates personal-service businesses like beauty salons will seek support from the business incubator.
“They’re already existing,” Dilley says. “A lot of these folks have had their businesses going on some level for a while. They maybe just need some more access to resources, funding, support, mentorship. While other folks just haven’t gotten into it yet.”
Judy Sarkozy holds two loaves of Challah bread inside Sarkozy Bakery and Cafe in downtown Kalamazoo. She says she didn’t know anything about business when she started 44 years ago so she’s happy entrepreneurs now have Can-Do Kalamazoo.
She says the role of Can-Do Kalamazoo will be to help coordinate those services among all its partner organizations. While some of those organizations may use office space in the new Can-Do location as needed, they will continue at their established locations.
Can-Do’s new location will include office space for staff, co-working (shared leasable) office space, open space with desks for plug-ins, classrooms, small-meeting space, a commercial kitchen divided into a hot cooking area and a food prep area, space for multi-purpose events, and room for pop-up retail events.
The organization is also expanding its 16-week Can-Do Camp, a small-business incubation process that teaches the requirements and best practices for starting a business. Set for Feb. 22 to June 7, the camp will allow participants to learn from local professionals and build a network of peers. Feb. 11 is the sign-up deadline for the camp. The cost is $400 per person.
Tempered by developments with the spread of COVID-19, it has not been determined whether the camp will be in-person, virtual, or a combination. Questions about the camp may be answered at Can-Do Kitchen’s monthly Virtual Group Tour & Info Session, which is scheduled for noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Sign-ups for those events are available here
Sarkozy says her bakery at 350 E. Michigan Ave. is having one of its best years. But the business, which now has 12 employees, may not have survived after fire destroyed its North Burdick Street location in 2012 if not for the Can-Do Kitchen. She used the kitchen’s space to continue to fill orders and generate revenue.
“The Gilmore (International Keyboard Festival) still wanted us to do cookies,” she says. “We didn’t know whether we were going to reopen again or not. But they still wanted their cookies. So we made them in the Can-Do Kitchen. And the response to that, to those cookies, really convinced me that I needed to reopen. So it was part of keeping Sarkozy Bakery alive.”
What stops people from starting a business?
Dilley says, “I think a lot of time it’s not knowing the next step to take and not being confident in themselves. And then I think money also gets in the way.”
Sarkozy says that when she started in business, she received counseling from professionals who didn’t understand why she was quibbling over paying $50 for a vacuum cleaner.
“These guys helping me were from Upjohn,” she says. “They didn’t understand anything on that level.”
Dilley says, “I think people don’t know where to turn first. But that’s part of what we do. Here’s a list of places to go to work on these things. Here are these documents. Here’s your road map. Here’s where you are right now. Here’s what you’ve accomplished. And here’s where you’re headed.”
She says being afraid to mess up is natural “but really that’s going to happen to everyone. We just need to do it in a supportive environment and learn from it.”