Open Kitchen

Open Kitchen

Watsonville’s new food enterprise incubator aims to spur local artisanal food ventures

By Elizabeth Limbach

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Business plans, product development, permits, equipment, regulations, commercial kitchen rental, labeling—the road to starting a food business is difficult to navigate, to say the least.

But in a boon to would-be local food artisans without an MBA or much in the way of startup financing, a new culinary business incubator that opened in July in Watsonville is aiming to eliminate some of these obstacles and provide assistance with others.

“One of the things with food businesses is that oftentimes people think it’s much easier than it is,” says Carmen Herrera-Mansir, executive director for El Pajaro Community Development Corp., which operates the 8,000-square-foot kitchen in the former Alfaro’s Micro Bakery. “And then they also don’t realize the amount of in- vestment it requires, especially if you don’t have a kitchen. With a kitchen made available, you reduce the start-up investment.”

The program is a natural for the community. Watsonville’s unemployment rate has been hovering above 20%, and the EPCDC found that 40% of its clients wanted to start food businesses.

The nonprofit identified several possible factors at work in this ballooning interest. Some is residual—veterans of Watsonville’s now- defunct food processing industry looking to use skills they already have—and some is part of a surging desire among area farmers to diversify their businesses by making value-added, marketable products like jams and canned sauces that bring a higher price than their raw produce.

A blossoming food movement makes the project even more relevant. “There are a lot of things going on right now that promote people’s interest in food and food businesses,” says Herrera-Mansir.

Not surprisingly, the kitchen, which has just 15 workstations that rent for between $10 and $30 per hour, had attracted a waitlist of more than 60 clients even before it opened. The applicants ranged in age from people in their early 20s to those in their 80s, with their ambitions ranging from producing tortillas and tamales to soups, salads and salsas.

La Selva Beach resident Maggie Driscoll sees the incubator as her chance to transition from a hectic catering career to her dream job: producing her own delicious food line. If all goes well with her first item—a tasty take on basic granola—she hopes to land other products on market shelves, under the name “Maggie’s Farm.”

“[This kitchen] is a wonderful opportunity,” she says. “It could be a really successful venture for a lot of people, and for some, it could be a big business belly flop. Any time you go into business by yourself, it’s a risk.”

The difference between this incubator and many others cropping up around the nation is the bevy of educational and technical assistance services thrown in. Driscoll had her business plan and packaging already hammered out when the kitchen opened, but she said she did plan to apply for one of EPCDC’s micro-loans.

The agency’s ultimate goal in supporting these food start-ups is of course to empower the entrepreneurs who will go on to create jobs and spur economic improvement in the region, says Herrera-Mansir.

A similar vision is propelling clients like Maggie Driscoll forward with their own projects.

“If I could have a decent, steady income, hire some employees and have a nice little running business, that would be golden,” Driscoll says.

Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist based in Santa Cruz.

Watsonville Commercial Kitchen Incubator • 412 Riverside Drive, Watsonville • 831.722.1224•

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