The proposal aims to transform an empty kitchen in the old Long Wharf campus of Gateway Community College, which moved to a set of new facilities downtown last fall, into an incubator for local food businesses. The transformation of a now-deserted industrial kitchen into a bustling community space, where pickle-makers, pie-makers, and tomato sauce connoisseurs alike will work side-by-side is enough to make city officials enthusiastic about the project, talking about it the way one might a landmark legislative program. “Everyone has been really excited about it,” said Murphy. “You don’t always see that level of enthusiasm.”
The excitement comes from the conviction that the Food Incubator Project can concretely and meaningfully impact New Haven’s food sector. City officials hope that Gateway’s kitchen, once it’s converted into a rental unit, will invigorate the city’s growing food industry, which Murphy called “an extremely strong sector of New Haven’s economy.” The kitchen boasts multiple ovens, stoves, refrigerators and freezers—it even has a proofer, which is a machine for making bread.
Patrick Palmieri, a third generation New Haven tomato sauce-maker, said the entry into the food sector is not an easy one and a plan like this could help prospective food entrepreneurs. Palmieri said that becoming a part of the Palmieri Food Products business was a choice to “stick to the stuff I know: the red tomato sauce,” and to carry on his grandmother’s decision in 1920 to turn her homemade creation into a commercial product. He said that for new entrepreneurs, however, the hardest part of getting into the food business is getting started. “No one person is going to appear in this business without someone helping them,” he said.
Officials hope that the new food incubator could provide that initial help. The aim is that New Haven foodies, from startup bakers looking to experiment with new recipes to established local restaurateurs in need of extra kitchen space, will jump at the opportunity to take advantage of expanded facilities at a reasonable price.
The current plan for the incubator stipulates that rent for the Gateway kitchen will be subsidized by the city in order to keep prices down so that startup companies can afford to use the space. Michael Melillo, a farmer at New Mercies Farm in Lyme, Conn., said he was optimistic about the prospects for the incubator to decrease costs for new food businesses. “I took a tour of the space back in December or January and I thought the potential was encouraging for small farmers like myself,” he said. Access to a certified kitchen is hard to come by, he said, adding that “the cost to have your own is prohibitive.”
Enter the Gateway Food Incubator. “We’re trying to establish a space for people who want to be food entrepreneurs, or for people who want to grow and expand their business,” Murphy said. The specifics of the plan, however, remain somewhat fuzzy: according to the proposal, businesses would pay for membership to the space, which would allow them to negotiate which weeks or months they would like to rent out the kitchen, but rates remain unspecified.
Helen Gaynier of Something Sweet Inc., a bakery located near the old Gateway campus, explained that Something Sweet hoped to potentially use the space as a test kitchen for new products or variations. “We have enough production facilities,” she said. “It’s more for having a test kitchen to try a new formulation or bake samples.” For Melillo, the space represents a place he could use to transform his highly perishable fruits or vegetables into “value-added products”: “I could turn the fruits or vegetables I can’t hold on to into jams, tomato sauces, or even baked goods like fruit pies,” Melillo said.
City officials also hope that the Food Incubator Project can help New Haven food entrepreneurs navigate the logistical and legal sides of opening a new small business. Tagan Engel, the head of the New Haven Food Policy Council, said she hopes that the incubator will provide technical business support for New Haven’s foodies. “We’d like for it to provide business support services so that people can learn about writing a business plan or navigating the legal processes,” she said.
In the 2012 New Haven Food Action Plan, a document drafted by Engel’s New Haven Food Policy Council, the group laid out its approach to changing the food culture in the city. One of the council’s principal goals is to stimulate and fortify the city’s food businesses in the hopes that they expand and hire new workers locally, and Engel saw the incubator as a direct expression of this goal. “We’re trying to create a support system for small businesses to scale up,” she said.
The general feeling is that New Haven’s food scene is firmly on the up and up. “A lot of restaurants are opening right now in New Haven, tons of them,” remarked Palmieri. “That’s the biggest change in New Haven.” And the city hopes that the incubator will help to seed this fertile ground. “New Haven is a vibrant and creative community, and having a kitchen will open that up to all kinds of possibilities,” Melillo commented. “People will start producing things they otherwise wouldn’t.”
But with much of the project still uncertain, some aired notes of caution. “Right now we like the idea in theory, but we haven’t gotten down to the point where it’s a little bit more concrete,” said Gaynier. Murphy explained that the city is still hammering out the logistical issues surrounding the incubator. “We want to be flexible to meet different needs,” she said, “but we also want to be managing a project that can support the costs of running the facility.” If city officials are able to appropriately strike that balance (Murphy seemed certain they would) New Haven’s new Food Incubator will open this fall. Who knows—maybe Yale’s next favorite restaurant will be born in the old kitchen at Gateway.