Spice Kitchen Incubator helps refugees start food businesses

Story and photos by RYAN CARRILLO

Spice Kitchen Incubator gives certain Utah residents a unique opportunity: a chance to plan and develop a food-based business.

The kitchen incubator primarily assists international refugees who have relocated to Salt Lake City, but also provides services to immigrants and lower-income individuals. The program is part of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, or IRC SLC, which helps in international crises and relocates refugees in 22 different cities throughout the U.S.

Spice Kitchen Incubator provides everything from ovens to large prep space for the chefs

Spice Kitchen Incubator provides everything from ovens to large prep space for the chefs.

Refugees are individuals forced to leave their native country due to political unrest, war or safety concerns. When they are relocated to the United States, they have to adapt to a completely new culture and way of living.

Spice Kitchen Incubator helps them adjust to some of these changes.

Entrepreneurs, or participants, in Spice Kitchen Incubator aspire to start their own business. These individuals will mostly likely run their own catering business, food truck or farmers market booth by the end of the program.

The program is designed to help each entrepreneur achieve these goals and be successful in the American business market.

“Every entrepreneur’s goals are different but our overall goal is to build self-sufficient businesses,” said Genevieve Healey, the program coordinator for Spice Kitchen Incubator. “Those are the things we are helping them with, [things] like accounting, marketing and connecting them to resources. At a certain point they are comfortable doing that all on their own and they know how to use those resources.”

Spice Kitchen Incubator is divided into two different levels: pre-incubation and incubation. Pre-incubation is designed to help entrepreneurs develop a business plan and teach them how to run a successful business. Incubation is focused on real experience and exposure, putting each participant in control of their business.

Entrepreneurs begin in pre-incubation. They participate in this level for six months before advancing to incubation, depending on their individual needs and progress. During this phase of the program, they are building the foundation for running a business.

Each Saturday, the kitchen incubator hosts workshops for those individuals, covering everything from profit-and-loss and advertising to marketing positioning and food costing. Additionally, each entrepreneur will participate in a focus group. The focus group plays an essential role in the development of the aspiring business owner’s business plan.

“Volunteers from the food industry and the community come and try the entrepreneur’s food and those are entrepreneurs in pre-incubation so they are just developing their menu and what they are going to sell,” Healey said.

Feedback from volunteers is essential. It helps the chefs make adjustments to the business plan. It also can help them develop a mentorship with people in the community.

Kamal is one of 10 entrepreneurs in the pre-incubation stage. As a Bhutanese refugee, he was resettled in the U.S. almost five years ago. He has participated in the Spice Kitchen Incubator for almost a year.

Kamal’s focus group met on March 11, 2015. The chef spent several hours preparing food to present to the group. He said he has enjoyed participating in the program and was excited to share his culture and food with the volunteers and staff. He said he is very appreciative for the help of his wife and daughter, as well as a local volunteer, while preparing for his focus group.

Kamal prepares for his focus group with the help of his wife, daughter and a community volunteer.

Kamal prepares for his focus group with the help of his wife, daughter and a community volunteer.

After pre-incubation, entrepreneurs advance to incubation. This portion of the program typically lasts for 4 to 4 1/2 years. In all, entrepreneurs are able to be in the program for five years. There are currently three entrepreneurs enrolled in the incubation portion of the program. Since the Spice Kitchen Incubator was only opened in 2013, no one has graduated from the program yet.

During incubation, the aspiring business owners begin running an operational business. They start by applying for their business license. Once received, the entrepreneurs begin catering events and participating in local farmers markets.

During the winter, the chefs sell pre-packaged food at the market that they prepare at the Spice Kitchen Incubator’s facilities. The winter market is held every other Saturday at the Rio Grande Depot (300 S. 300 West) from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. It runs through April 2015.

During the summer farmers market, entrepreneurs rotate between packaged and prepared foods. Prepared foods are cooked on-site rather than at the Spice Kitchen Incubator facilities. Healey said the kitchen hopes to expand its services at this year’s summer market to include one booth dedicated solely to packaged foods and another just for prepared foods. This would give the entrepreneurs more exposure and increase their ability to build a client base. The summer market runs from June 13 to Oct. 24, 2015, and is held each week at Pioneer Park on 300 W. 400 South.

Healey said the farmers market demonstrated how beneficial the incubator’s programs can be for both the business owners as well as the community as a whole.

“The farmers market was a really awesome experience, especially the summer farmers market because it is where we can do prepared foods,” she said. “We’ve said that there is a need for this in the community but it was really cool to have that hands-on [experience], like ‘oh yeah, people really want this.’”

Community members can get involved with the incubator through several different ways. The Spice Kitchen Incubator is always looking for individuals to serve on focus group panels, which requires a commitment of a couple hours each session, as well as help with any other topics related to running a business. Donations can also be made on the incubator’s website.

Maria Gigourtaki, who works as the volunteer and communications coordinator for the kitchen, said volunteers can have some amazing experiences with the program. “[The entrepreneurs] are all so passionate,” she said. “I mean, food is something that gets people together and it’s awesome. You can get to see and meet people, new cultures, new flavors, history, languages, everything. It’s amazing!”