New and exciting restaurants are popping up all over Evanston, so one might think that starting a culinary business is easy as pie. However, only about half of new businesses make it to their five-year anniversary according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the culinary business community is no exception.
On June 26, the City’s Economic Development Committee met at Now We’re Cookin’, a culinary center on Payne Street that serves small food businesses by offering kitchen rental space and other resources. Nell Funk, a chef and owner of Now We’re Cookin’, gave a presentation on what the business has accomplished since July, 2012, when the city gave it a $35,050 Economic Development Fund grant to expand the business and transition into a “Food Business Incubator”. This is the first year of a three-year partnership with the City. The presentation detailed what the company has achieved in the last year, including the addition of a packaging area to the space, a commercial small-wares dishwasher and new staff to oversee incubator activity.
A major part of what many start-up food businesses require is access to food preparation space and tools. The 1,200-square-foot space includes three cooking bays with vital equipment like six-burner stove tops, prep sinks, refrigeration and even space to bring your own equipment for temporary use.
“We thought there was a need in the Chicago area for kitchen space,” said Ms. Funk, who recognized the demand for resources in the small food business community.
Chef Ida Mollenhauer, owner of an Evanston catering company, has been using the facilities at Now We’re Cookin’ for almost 5 years. “The best thing is the equipment and the size of the space,” she said. “(At Now We’re Cookin’) I produce everything.”
Gotta B Crepes, another business that uses the space at Now We’re Cookin’, has flourished in its three years there. “We use it for serving the farmers markets in Chicago and the north shore area,” said, Ryan Jones, one of the owners. “The space is great for our business right now.” Gotta B Crepes has grown exponentially in the last few years, using the kitchens at Now We’re Cookin’ to make their batters and homemade sauces while serving 8-12 farmers markets each week.
The space is not just about having a place to prepare food. A key reason that the City of Evanston has invested in Now We’re Cookin’ is to provide training for entrepreneurs in basic business management skills, as well as supporting food start-ups that intend to stay in Evanston for the long term.
This involves access to resources such as industry mentors and education. “[Now We’re Cookin’] offers a place to produce and store products, training for start-ups, on-going seminars for topics important to food companies and access to vetted recourses,” said Ms. Funk. The seminars include such topics as “Food Business 101” and a monthly session called “Introduction to Entrepreneurship.”
Even with the all the resources that Now We’re Cookin’ provides, its location offers benefits to businesses as well.
“It’s great to have something so close because I live in Evanston, so I don’t have to travel into the city,” said Ms. Mollenhauer, “Its great because I have the equipment there and the storage capabilities there.” Mr. Jones agreed, saying, “We like it because my goal is to be able to move to Evanston. It was more like a personal benefit because I can live and work so close.”
In a community like Evanston with such diversity in just about everything, it is no wonder that so many businesses are drawn here. The City of Evanston supports these businesses through the investment of places like Now We’re Cookin’, which devote time towards developing business skills and opportunities. For many small food businesses, this support can be invaluable.