Photo: Lindsay Galatro
Photo: Lindsay Galatro

Culinary Collaborations: The Rise of DC Food Incubators

A burgeoning food mecca worthy of Michelin stars and an entrepreneurial spirit that launched the likes of Sweetgreen and &pizza on a national stage make it no surprise that the food incubator trend has taken hold in the nation’s capital.

These coworking commercial kitchen spaces offer a home base to entrepreneurs interested in learning how to run a food business. They’ve helped lower the barrier of entry for those looking to put a great recipe or idea out on the market, leading to the creation of hundreds of DC-made products and concepts in the last few years.

Union Kitchen paved the way, opening the first food incubator in DC in 2012 in NoMa and more recently, a second location in Ivy City. Since then, four other incubators have come onto the scene: Mess Hall, EatsPlace DC, TasteLab and the upcoming Tastemakers from the owners of Captain Cookie and the Milkman.

TasteLab started out just like some of the startups currently occupying its 9,000-square-foot industrial kitchen space in Northeast DC. Founder Ryan Hansan had a great idea, but lacked the infrastructure or space to execute it.

“I had a dinner kit delivery company called scratchDC that we launched in 2012,” Hansan says. “We actually started out of a very small bar kitchen in National Harbor and grew out of the space. We had some contacts in the industry, but unless you get really lucky and find a restaurant or bar that would allow you to come in and use their space during off-peak hours, there was really no commercial facility at the time that was licensed and ready for a small food startup to move into.”

Realizing there were others in the same position, Hansan decided to go out and build his own commercial kitchen and rent out extra space to his industry friends. After a yearlong search for the appropriate space, Hansan settled on a wide-open plumbing warehouse in Northeast, and launched TasteLab in 2015.

“We looked at where our revenue was coming from, and the commercial kitchen business for us was booming, and we were getting so many inquiries and people moving in,” he says. “If we shut down scratchDC, we would have much more room for people to come in, and that’s ultimately the decision we made and we haven’t looked back.”

Now, TasteLab has over 80 small business entrepreneurs operating out of its space, with companies in the pipeline that the incubator is working with to get up and running, and daily inquiries into renting kitchen space. The incubator caters to clients at every stage of the process, whether they already have a license in place or are starting with just an idea. Hansan says TasteLab covers everything from “walking [clients] through registration with the government to ordering and packaging food to how to build a website.”

TasteLab is essentially a one-stop shop to come and launch your food business. Along with shelving space and use of the kitchen, clients have access to the depth of knowledge Hansan and his team have developed over years with hits and misses in the food startup industry. This includes an established relationship list with major packaging and food vendors, marketing associates, licensing, and attorneys.

“DC is a really solid place to start these businesses because people have disposable income, there is a wide variety of tastes in the city, and people living here have high expectations and want quality food,” Hansan says. “It’s quite ripe for the growth of any sort of food company.”

In April, TasteLab opened up its first retail space at Union Market, showcasing 130 different DC-made products; it’s currently the only booth in the market to do so. Everything from root beer and popcorn to jerky and chocolates is featured at the space.

“It’s been a great benefit to our clients interested in retail,” Hansan says. “We’ve gotten them on the shelves and given them some revenue, and hopefully the confidence to go out and sell their products to any grocery store in the area.”

Bethany Kazaba, cofounder and managing principal of Neighborhood Retail Group, explained that the increasing success of food incubators in the District could very well push restaurateurs, especially ones expanding, to build out larger kitchens to service multiple restaurants rather than building a larger restaurant and kitchen space.

“The challenge is where is that affordable space, and where will you put a larger format production kitchen that is close enough to the market with easy access?” Kazaba says. “Landlords will need to be flexible and understanding, and think outside the box.”

Kazaba, whose real estate firm’s clientele includes restaurants and retail, is one of five cofounders of Restaurant Brain Trust, a collective effort from several active members of the DC area restaurant community to develop an educational and networking series geared toward restaurateurs and their staff.

“We thought there was a void in the DC market, where there really wasn’t a great educational or networking program for the restaurant industry, and so we thought we could fill that void,” says Restaurant Brain Trust Cofounder Trish McHugh.

The new group kicked off with a March 7 inaugural event to a huge turnout, featuring an impressive panel that interacted with the audience on topics of importance to the local restaurant community, McHugh explains.

“One takeaway from this is we aren’t just allowing anyone to be on the panel,” she says. “It’s a very committee-driven process and an absolute requirement that panelists speak honestly and freely about the questions we are asking. Because the honest response, although it can be brash and difficult, is extremely important to help other entrepreneurs and startup restaurants.”

Restaurant Brain Trust followed their inaugural event with a June 1 industry panel and networking happy hour event on Bar Deco’s rooftop, showcasing a notable panel of DC restaurateurs discussing leasing and labor issues. The group plans to host quarterly events; the next one is slated for October and will have a financial focus, with experts on the panel including lawyers, accountants and restaurant owners.

“I think it’s important to hear from someone who is in the trenches, who started like everyone else did and expanded,” McHugh says.

Learn more about local culinary incubators at their websites:

EatsPlace DC: www.eatsplace.com
Mess Hall: www.messhalldc.com
TasteLab: www.tastelab.co

Union Kitchen: www.unionkitchendc.com


Cowork & Dine

You don’t have to be in the restaurant industry to enjoy the perks of DC’s collaborative food scene. Spots around the DMV offer coworking spaces to locals looking for a unique way to work that involves good food and maybe even a libation or two. Our short list of coworking spaces with stellar dining options is below.

Busboys and Poets
With multiple locations around the DMV, Busboys and Poets prides itself on being a neighborhood gathering place for “artists, activists, writers, thinkers and dreamers.” All locations offer ample seating, a variety of delicious menu items (including many vegan and gluten-free) and free Wi-Fi, making it an ideal location to sit and work for awhile. The Takoma location offers a coworking space with available computers and a self-service area for ordering drinks. Various locations in the DMV; www.busboysandpoets.com

CoworkCafe at Boccato
The concept, which operates in a reserved space of Boccato, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., gives you a functional workspace with the comforts of a coffee shop. For $150/month, members get a $50 food credit, reserved comfortable seating with tons of floor outlets, high-speed Wi-Fi, private booths for calls and basic office amenities. 2719 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.coworkcafe.com

Indique
This renowned Indian restaurant offers “chai + Wi-Fi,” a membership-based cowork space at their Cleveland Park location, available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For $35/month, members take advantage of unlimited masala chai, tons of outlets, high-speed Wi-Fi and a comfortable workspace. Try it out for $8 your first time, or a one-week trial for $15. 3512 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.indique.com

Mulebone
From the owners of Busboy and Poets, Mulebone hosts a free community workspace with a full menu of healthy treats including all day brunch, free Wi-Fi and color printing, and $3 coffee with unlimited refills. Spread out your work and get things done at one of the many booths or communal tables. 2121 14th St. NW, DC; www.mulebonedc.com

Northside Social
Award-winning baked goods, free coffee refills and complimentary Wi-Fi for customers, along with two levels of communal seating, make Northside Social one of the go-to work and meeting spots in Clarendon. And on a sunny day, you’ll find patrons taking advantage of the outdoor picnic tables for al fresco meetings. 3211 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; www.northsidesocialarlington.com

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Alex Thompson

Alex is a fan of all things food and sports, as well as a writer. By day she is a nonprofit communications manager, and by night she is searching the District for the best cocktails, whiskey selection and cuisine. Check out her blog at hellofoodgirl.com and follow her on twitter at @sportsfoodalex.