So you’re a whiz at baking cakes, and everyone tells you ‘you should do this for a living!’ Or you make an epic salsa that’s hungrily snapped up at the local farmer’s market, and people are asking ‘where else can we buy this?’ In neither case do you know how to take that next step – to turn your hobby/passion into a full-time, viable business.
Enter The Kitchen Project.
The programme began two years ago as a conversation between “a handful of people”. “We were looking at the direction of kai in Auckland, discussing how the foundation of food in this city starts with low-cost, small-business, authentic, diverse experiences,” says Connie Clarkson of urban regeneration agency Panuku Development, one of three partners involved in the scheme.
“In cities around the world these experiences are predominantly delivered by indigenous and migrant communities, and we want to support these here.”
The Kitchen Project – set up by Panuku; government initiative Healthy Families; and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) – offers mentorship and commercial kitchen space to help budding food entrepreneurs in west and south Auckland take their business to the next level. The initiative is inspired by La Cocina in San Francisco, one of the most successful food business incubators in the US, and has already notched up a fair few successes of its own.
Each intake consists of between five and eight businesses. “Less is more here, because the time we have with each person is precious,” says project manager Sreshta Sridhar.
How do they decide who to accept onto the six-month programme, which ideas have legs?
“We’re looking for people who are hungry to get a business up and running, and a desire to see their dream through. Do they have the drive? That’s rare,” says Connie.
“One of the key things we look for is a product or concept that is polished and ready to go,” says Sreshta. “We’re always on the lookout for something diverse, unique. We also look for personalities who will gel well together throughout the programme. A peer support network is crucial, so we try to avoid taking on competing businesses.”
Connie says to make your mark in today’s local culinary scene, you need an innovative product using fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients – and one that has a story attached. “Many of our cohorts have started out cooking in their homes; their ideas have emerged within their families, through their parents and grandparents, and their stories are crucial.”
The Kitchen Project also strives to reflect the community in which it’s embedded.
“It’s essential that we support the cuisines of the people who live there, to showcase the culture that’s innately woven into the kai of the indigenous and migrant people of New Zealand,” says Connie.
Each successful applicant starts with initial business training followed by one-on-one mentoring. Through trial and error, and thanks to constant feedback from mentors, by the time applicants ‘graduate’, they’ve got a pretty slick operation on their hands – and sometimes not at all what they expected when they started out.
Take Fiji-born Bertrand Jang, for example. He’s gone from making delicious sweet treats for friends and family to running his own Pacific Island cakery, Sweet & Me, in Auckland suburb Onehunga. Bert’s initial idea was to create luxurious, expensive cakes for events; however, his mentor advised otherwise. “His mentor talked about how event-driven product can be hard to make into a consistent revenue steam, and they came up with the idea to supplement that side of his business with smaller, inexpensive, everyday products; slices and single-serve treats. This forms a steady product base that will enable him to sustain his passion and original vision alongside it, doing more of what he loves within a sustainable business model.”
Then there’s the Israeli street food maker Carmel, who wanted to see authentic Israeli cuisine represented in the Auckland food scene. With her handmade Yemenite pita bread, filled with meat, seasonal veggies and homemade sauces, Carmel was named one of Auckland’s best food trucks, travelling to many large events and festivals. With the help of The Kitchen Project, Carmel has left her full-time job and is currently looking for a permanent spot for her business.
Connie and Sreshta are understandably proud of The Kitchen Project’s achievements, and would love to see similar models around the country.
“It’s highly replicable and is engineered to be adaptable to the communities it moves into. It makes sense to keep people near their home turf because we want locals to have a sense of investment in the businesses that emerge.”
The Kitchen Project is currently inviting applications for its next intake; to apply, go to thekitchenproject.co.nz