Commercial kitchens and food incubators are proving to be a growth industry in New Jersey.
Djenaba Johnson-Jones knew she would encounter roadblocks when she began making plans to develop a prepared meal delivery business in 2014.
She just didn’t expect this one: New Jersey is the only state in the nation banning the sale of all foods made in one’s home.
But Johnson-Jones wasn’t deterred. In fact, she saw it as an opportunity.
“In talking with other people facing similar obstacles, that very challenge morphed into this other business that took on a life of its own,” she said.
That business, Hudson Kitchen, is now a prime example of a growing business sector in the state: food incubators and commercial kitchens.
Founded as a culinary incubator in Jersey City in 2015, Hudson Kitchen is expanding. This spring, it will relocate to an 8,000-square-foot shared-use commercial kitchen at Kearny Point in South Kearny, joining several other food- and beverage-related ventures at the enormous coworking space.
And Johnson-Jones, founder and CEO of Hudson Kitchen, will join a growing group of women entrepreneurs who have opened shared-use commercial kitchens and food incubators in the state within the last six months in preparation for what they hope will become a cross-cultural, community-based food revolution in New Jersey.
“Hudson Kitchen will continue to offer growth and sustainability opportunities to local culinary visionaries who not only are looking for a facility to prepare their goods, but also for a network of collaborative and like-minded entrepreneurs,” she said.
However, it is not the only place in New Jersey — or the United States — that is taking part in the trend due to a clear, sustained interest in food entrepreneurship.
The number of commercial kitchens and food incubators nationwide has increased by more than 50 percent over the last five years.
In New Jersey, that timeline seems shorter.
Last August, Lois Roe started Shore is Yummy in Manasquan, setting up a commercial kitchen to sell her gluten-free products to local customers, farmers markets and wholesale.
Then, two more commercial kitchens — specifically designed for food entrepreneurs to rent — opened in November.
Kris Ohleth started Garden State Kitchen in Orange, which has food preparation areas, a baking studio and two catering kitchens available to rent by the hour.
And Meredith Chartier opened Bellamy Kitchen in Union City, the first full-service commercial kitchen in Hudson County. She plans to host future workshops to provide business support for her 12 current and any future tenants.
But the fact that these four commercial kitchens are all run by women is not so surprising.
According to a survey conducted by Econsult Solutions Inc. and American Communities Trust and Urbane Development, women make up more than half of tenants at food incubators, while minorities are nearly a third.
“We enable people to better diversify the workforce by being better able to hire more employees,” Johnson-Jones said.
Their collective journeys, however, have been far from easy.
The food industry always has been notorious for being tough.
Ohleth said she does not think Garden State Kitchen would have been as successful right off the bat if it were not for the strong business acumen she had accrued in her full-time work elsewhere.
“I sometimes think that is why this concept is often proposed but does not always make it to fruition — it just takes a lot,” she said. “Many people who are chefs and are passionate about food may simply not understand all the logistics and administrative requirements it will take to lift this sort of thing off the ground.”
But Chartier, founder and owner of Bellamy Kitchen, said she and her husband, Thomas Chartier, learned a lot along the way, having begun searching for a property in which to build a commercial kitchen facility from the ground up five years ago.
That’s partially due to the multiple zoning, demolition and construction obstacles the pair faced, despite him owning The Chartier Group, a real estate development company in Hoboken.
“This industry is not for the faint of heart or for those who think they’ll be up and running in six months,” Meredith Chartier said.
Roe faced a different issue — one that continues to lead her deeper into the industry.
While working part-time as a bakery chef at The Grind Coffee House in Plainsboro for nearly two years, thinking it could be part of her retirement plan, she received unexpected news: Her primary employer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, laid her off in May 2017 with a severance package.
“But, I thought, this was my big opportunity to set up my own kitchen,” Roe said.
However, shortly after renovating a Hurricane Sandy-damaged space in August of last year, she was hired back at Bristol-Myers Squibb as a consultant in October.
Thankfully, she found Jennifer Long, owner of Simply Delightful Treats, a vegan, nut- and gluten-free baker in Edison, whom she began renting to and sharing her commercial kitchen with — a path previously unfamiliar to Roe.
“However, we are well-aligned in what we are trying to do, so it’s worked out well,” she said.
The concept is not exactly new.
While culinary incubators and commercial kitchens have been rapidly growing over the last five years, Diana Holtaway, associate director and business development at Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, said she is a veteran of the industry.
“I’ve been here for 17 years,” she said.
RFIC was established as one of the first food incubators in the state in 2001 before relocating to its current $8 million, 23,000-square-foot food business accelerator, processing and manufacturing facility in Bridgeton in 2008.
“Nearly 10 years ago, it was mostly small startup companies that would need our resources,” Holtaway said. “But now, much larger, much more established companies are coming in, wanting to get into new categories that they are not equipped to produce, or they are looking for resources to utilize as they enter into new categories of food.”
Richard McArdle, executive director at RFIC, said it’s not easy, as he feels food has one of the most complicated supply chains of any consumer product.
“If entrepreneurs have done the work already of developing their ideas and business plans at commercial kitchens or food incubators, we, of course, can take it from there,” he said. “But what we are especially good at is taking products to market at scale, while looking toward more complex steps such as distribution, warehousing, transportation and retail.”
McArdle, however, is quick to note that RFIC works with smaller companies, too.
In fact, Holtaway said many of the leads RFIC gets come from commercial kitchens, as companies need to scale.
“Everyone plays a part in the food ecosystem of New Jersey, from farmers to commercial kitchens, from markets to retailers, and RFIC, too, contributes in a very specific way,” she said. “We provide a number of different services to help our clients fine-tune their ideas, complete market research and product development, and, finally, go into production.
“But when clients first start out, they may be better suited for commercial kitchens when producing on a much smaller scale.”
The potential of the sector is high, a fact Ohleth said she has seen firsthand.
“We’ve had people approach us about renting the entire space,” she said. “While that’s tempting as an entrepreneur, to never have to worry about money, that is not in spirit with why we started Garden State Kitchen.”
That is why Ohleth said she continues to approach the endeavor as mission-based rather than profit-based, and why, like many of the commercial kitchens and food incubators sprouting up in the state, she said she intends to grow her brand throughout New Jersey to provide opportunities to more communities.
“There really is just such a lack elsewhere in the state,” she said. “We would love to open our second location by the end of this year in Central or South Jersey, because there is not a lot going on there right now.
“In fact, we are looking to create smaller spaces, like allergen-free facilities, perhaps, and picture a variety of these types of annexes spreading throughout the state.”
Getting organized throughout the state is another matter.
“We are still very much a ragtag group, in my opinion,” Ohleth said.
However, Ohleth said she and her New Jersey-based comrades have The Network for Incubators and Commissary Kitchens, or NICK, a private Facebook group in which to share best practices and resources. It is moderated by The Food Corridor in Fort Collins, Colorado, a virtual platform designed to connect shared-use kitchens with food entrepreneurs nationwide while simplifying scheduling, billing and operations.
“Our mission is to enable efficiency, growth and innovation in local food, and facilitating this community helps us to stay intimately connected to the industry, identify opportunities and provide valuable resources,” Ashley Colpaart, CEO of The Food Corridor, said. “As an emerging industry, community is essential.”
According to Colpaart, top barriers to success for food entrepreneurs include accessing kitchen space, securing financing, marketing, increasing production volume, regulatory compliance and a lack of time to manage daily operations.
But commercial kitchens and food incubators help to solve all of these issues, Colpaart said at the Smart Kitchen Summit last year.
“The economy is changing and access to assets is becoming more important than ownership of assets,” she said.
Learn more about four of these commercial kitchens here: ROI-NJ’s closer look at four commercial kitchens in N.J.
Breaking down the industry
According to New Jersey-based commercial kitchens and food incubators, there are four words and phrases that best describe the industry:
According to Kris Ohleth, founder and owner of Garden State Kitchen in Orange, people have indicated that they would not travel more than 30 minutes to get to an incubator.
And for the majority of her tenants, Meredith Chartier, founder and owner of Bellamy Kitchen in Union City, said location is indeed the biggest point of differentiation.
But New Jersey can do better overall, she added.
Chartier, a WELL-accredited professional, wants to compost in order to adhere to the guidelines put forth by Bellamy Kitchen’s LEED Platinum certification.
“So, I am pushing New Jersey to work with local waste haulers and farms to figure out how the state can help build out compost pick-up infrastructure,” she said. “New York City is doing it, but for some reason, New Jersey is not up to speed.”
Ohleth said it is extremely helpful for industry players to refer people back and forth.
Djenaba Johnson-Jones, founder and CEO of Hudson Kitchen in South Kearny, said she does so by putting together a list of available commercial kitchens in the area to send to people, given that Hudson Kitchen’s commercial kitchen is not yet open.
“The overall goal for me is to connect people with the resources needed to help them start and grow sustainable businesses,” she said. “And I’m simply paying it forward. Rutgers Food Innovation Center, for example, has been a huge supporter of Hudson Kitchen.
“When I told them I was relocating to South Kearny, they recommended equipment I should purchase for our commercial kitchen based on what people were requesting at theirs.”
Ohleth said being located in a diverse community also allows commercial kitchens and food incubators to draw upon culinary traditions that otherwise might be lost to the masses.
“For example, we just hosted a 40-person sit-down event with the Syria Supper Club, a nonprofit that works with Syrian women to cater dinners,” she said. “This was not only an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, as we got to hear their stories about coming to the U.S., but especially in these really confusing times, with what is happening with race and ethnicity, to be able to come together through food and do it in this space in the middle of a community we all hold so dear is wonderful.”
Much of the diversity in the food space is pent up in risk aversion, Ohleth said.
“But I see places like Garden State Kitchen as being low-risk options for entrepreneurs to be able to access the support they need to be able to grow,” she said.
Paying an hourly or monthly membership fee, after all, provides entrepreneurs with much more than a kitchen, Johnson-Jones said.
“We clean, recycle, accept deliveries, repair equipment and more to give people the time and ability to have and grow their own businesses,” she said. “Plus, it’s inexpensive to rent a commercial kitchen versus trying to build out your own, which could cost between $100 and $300 per square foot.
New Jersey notables
Richard McArdle, executive director at Rutgers Food Innovation Center, said he has seen a steady increase over the last five to seven years in food startups and incubator-accelerator models, especially as venture capital firms have begun to specialize in food and beverage brands.
“I think, like other consumer products, this is part of a more global trend in the market toward smaller, more segment-oriented products,” he said.
However, there are simply not enough school cafeterias, church kitchens and restaurants to fill these entrepreneurs’ needs during off-hours and overnight, he added.
There are, though, nearly two dozen commissary kitchens available in New Jersey, according to The Food Corridor, with the highest concentration currently available in northeast New Jersey.
They range from food incubators, such as The Organic Food Incubator in Bloomfield, a meat- and gluten-free facility, to dedicated commercial kitchens, such as NJ Kosher Kitchens in Dumont, Cherry Street Kitchen in Trenton and Rent My Kitchen in Spring Lake Heights.
Then there always are those businesses who rent their commercial kitchen spaces, ranging from caterers such as Culinary Concepts Corp. in Fairfield; to restaurants such as Saveur Creole in Montclair and Jersey Girl Café in Hamilton Township; to cooking schools such as Le Gourmet Factory in Englewood; to event spaces such as The Snyder Academy of Elizabethtown Kitchen in Elizabeth.