Local foodies like farmer and pickle-maker Michael Melillo packed a Gateway classroom Monday to see if the community college’s abandoned Long Wharf kitchen can cook up some new business in town.
Melillo (pictured), a farmer at New Mercies Farm in Lyme, drove an hour to Gateway’s former Sargent Drive campus to hear plans for turning a commercial kitchen there into a “culinary incubator.” The incubator would invite local foodies to rent out the commercial kitchen for small-scale food production—and connect them to training and other resources to get a business off the ground.
Before a crowd of over 55 people, consultants hired by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) unveiled initial findings showing that demand—and adequate resources—exist to make the project possible.
The plan is still in early stages. Organizers plan to make a decision in six to nine months as to whether it’s a “go or no-go,” according to city economic development officer Mike Piscitelli. The incubator would be a collaboration between the city, EDC, Gateway, and the city public school system.
The plan aims to address a growing need in New Haven: Local foodies want to launch their own production enterprises. But they don’t have the space to do it. On Monday, Piscitelli and colleagues invited feedback on a report examining whether Gateway’s campus might hold the solution.
Vicki Bozzuto (pictured), Gateway’s dean of workforce development and continuing education, opened Monday’s event by giving tours of the kitchen space. When Gateway moved to a new downtown campus over the summer, it left behind a commercial-grade kitchen that used to house a culinary program. The equipment is only six years old, she said.
The kitchen, which spans less than 2,000 square feet, hosts three stoves, two deck ovens, two standalone refrigerators, one standalone freezer, two Hobart mixers, one grill, and one “proofer,” a machine used to let bread rise. There’s also a dishwasher and ice machine. Those are shared with the cafeteria serving students at Hyde magnet school, which moved to Gateway in mid-September. The cafeteria also offers some prep and storage space; a walk-in freezer, a grill, a deep fryer and another deck oven.
Melillo (pictured) said he made the trip to Gateway to see about expanding his canning operation. He grows organic vegetables on a three-acre farm, which has a CSA and grows food all year round. He’s looking for a larger kitchen so he can start producing more “value-added” products, such as pickles, sauerkraut, tomato sauce and kimchi. It wouldn’t be a large operation, he said—perhaps 300 cans at the end of the year, to be sold at farmers markets.
Back in an adjacent Gateway classroom, he heard consultants from Next Street, a small business advisory firm, pitch why the kitchen may answer his and other foodies’ needs.
New Haven has a few businesses that process food, but there is “little integration with local producers,” said Jon Aram, a founding partner of Next Street. There are about 14 wholesale food businesses in New Haven, representing 270 jobs, according to his company’s report. In addition, there are about 15 food manufacturing companies employing 506 people, producing gelato, bread and packaged meats. Several of New Haven’s prominent food manufacturers, such as Chabaso Bakery and Palmieri Foods, started as small cafes or retail stores before making the jump to manufacturing, he noted.
New Haven has a booming number of food entrepreneurs looking to follow those footsteps, Next Street found: there are 30 food carts between downtown and Long Wharf alone. In addition, there are local distributors looking for a “pipeline of local suppliers,” the report states. However, there is little infrastructure to support food businesses in their early stages, the company found. Some entrepreneurs are renting kitchens in restaurants after-hours, but there’s no shared commercial kitchen space just for small businesses. The nearest ones are in New York City; Lexington, N.Y. and Providence.
He said Gateway’s kitchen has some drawbacks: limited dry and cold storage; poor heat and humidity control, and a loading problem—to bring food to the kitchen, you’d have to roll it down a hallway. But there has no “insurmountable” roadblocks to turning it into an incubator.
According to emerging plans for the Gateway incubator, business owners would pay a fee to become members. They’d get subsidized rent to share the kitchen, as well as storage space and possibly office space. They’d also get technical assistance. The incubator would operate as a stand-alone entity; either for-profit or not-for-profit. The key will be to create a business plan that will be self-sustaining, based on the member fees, Piscitelli said.
In the future, the incubator could connect with a vo-tech high school program that Principal Steve Pynn has been planning at Gateway. Students could serve as interns for emerging entrepreneurs.
After the meeting, Melillo said he’s optimistic about the possibilities for pickling at the Gateway site. The kitchen has enough burners to accommodate water-bath or pressure-cooker canning, he said.
“There’s plenty of space.”