SALISBURY — Carla Whaley and her husband sometimes bake cookies around the clock for her home-based baking business in Spencer.
With only one oven in her state-inspected kitchen, Whaley can bake just 16 of her extra-large, gourmet cookies at a time.
But she could knock out dozens of cookies at once in a commercial kitchen. She also could expand her business to include cheesecake, pimento cheese and other delectables that require refrigeration, which the state doesn’t allow in a certified home kitchen.
Local food advocates want to know if other people like Whaley are interested in a cooperative industrial kitchen, also called a food business incubator.
Food entrepreneurs would rent time in the facility to bake, cook, bottle, can and freeze in large batches, committing a fraction of the time they would spend in a home kitchen and saving the hundreds of thousands of dollars it could cost to build their own industrial kitchen.
“I can’t be the only who has searched for one. I can’t be that unique,” Whaley said. “I think that it would be a great addition to the Salisbury area and the economy. People can start their own businesses.”
North Carolina has two nonprofit food business incubators, located in Asheville and Hillsborough. N.C. Cooperative Extension in Rowan County believes Salisbury could offer a third incubator that would serve not just Rowan but the entire Piedmont.
“Part of our vision is not just economic development but ideally marrying some of our farmers in the area to some of these businesses to use their products as ingredients — closing that loop and keeping things more local,” said Sherry Walker, a Rowan County master gardener working to gauge interest in the project.
The facility would offer several types of kitchens geared toward specific food preparation under one roof. Food entrepreneurs could package and label their products, as well.
The kitchen would allow chefs and bakers to test new products before investing in their own processing facility.
People drive hours to use the commercial kitchens in Asheville and Hillsborough, cars laden with ingredients like tomatoes to make a six-month supply of salsa, said Darrell Blackwelder, Rowan County Extension director.
They often spend the night in a hotel to work in the kitchen the next day producing large quantities of relish, barbecue sauce, pickles, sweet rolls and other local food products, Blackwelder said.
“You may know a person who makes the best chicken pot pie,” he said. “This is for people with the concept and knowledge, but who don’t have the capital to back them up.”
Food entrepreneurs would go through extensive training to use the food business incubator, which would follow state and federal food handling and preparation regulations, Blackwelder said.
The kitchen would supply everything but the actual ingredients, including all appliances, tools and cookware.
The project could benefit local food pantries as well, which are overrun with homegrown produce in the summer but have far fewer fresh fruits and veggies the rest of the year, Blackwelder said.
Gardeners and farmers could use the commercial kitchen to preserve excess fresh produce, providing a ready supply year-round for food pantries.
The food business incubator appeals to Julie Smith, a teacher at East Rowan High School who has wanted to start a food business for years but wasn’t willing to give up her pets.
The state bans animals from certified home kitchens.
“I would like to try it, but I would rather do it outside of my home,” Smith said.
Emma Martin practically dreams of the large ovens, sinks and storage areas she would find in a commercial kitchen.
The owner of the Bread Basket, Martin produces about 75 loaves of bread per week in one gas stove when the Salisbury Rowan Farmers Market is running. That takes between 20 and 30 hours.
She could cut that time in half or better by using a food business incubator.
The facility would encourage others to try their hand at commercial food preparation, Martin said. Some are discouraged by the red tape of a state-certified home kitchen.
“It can take forever to get inspected, and there are all the new rules and paperwork,” Martin said.
Money for a new stove could go to rent time in the food business incubator, with more product to show for it, she said.
The first step toward an incubator is a feasibility study, Walker said. The study would determine demand and what types of food products people want to prepare commercially.
Project organizers would use the study results to apply for a grant to fund construction of a food business incubator, which could cost $1 million or more, Walker said.
Through a collaboration with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, the incubator could offer training on how to start a business, from keeping the books to marketing, she said.
The Rowan County Economic Development Commission and Rowan County Chamber of Commerce have shown interest in the project, as well as local food advocates in Cabarrus County.
Aaron Newton, the Local Foods Systems Program coordinator for Cabarrus, said he’s spoken to private investors who are interested in partnering with government agencies on a food business incubator.
As the local food movement has grown, the overall focus has been on farms and farmers, Newton said.
“Now we are maturing a little but, and distribution and processing is just as important,” he said. “This is the next step to rebuilding the local food economy.”
Just as demand has been overwhelming for locally grown fruits and vegetables, people have become more interested in where and how their food is processed, Newton said.
“People feel more comfortable with food that has been processed locally,” he said. “They can still put a face with a name.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
If you’re thinking about starting a food business and would be interested in using a food business incubator or commercial kitchen, take the two-question survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/8TZQDLK . Rowan County Extension is gauging regional interest in the project. People in the Charlotte and Triad regions are encouraged to take the survey as well.
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