Upcoming kitchen incubator The Commissary to give food businesses a leg up 

In the lobby of the Metropolitan, formerly known as Chase Tower, the buzz of power tools echoes off the high ceiling as hard-hatted construction workers intermingle with downtown nine-to-fivers coming and going from the new arched glass entrance on South Clinton Avenue. One of the most recognizable landmarks in the Rochester skyline, the Metropolitan is undergoing a substantial makeover, and more changes are coming.

The Commissary, a kitchen incubator set to open in mid-2018, will eventually occupy the concourse level of the Metropolitan, providing shared kitchen facilities to member businesses. Program Director Laura Fox O'Sullivan says the initiative will boost downtown Rochester's economic and cultural vitality as the area's residential population continues to grow.

O'Sullivan, who is also the Vice President of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, says kitchen incubators address the most daunting barrier to entry for entrepreneurs wanting to break into the food business: the cost of building and outfitting a commercial kitchen — a sum that can reach $100,000. The Commissary will house 11 rentable commercial kitchen stations where the incubator's members can prepare, package, and store their wares. The facility will also include a performance kitchen, which will hold pop-up restaurants, cooking classes, and other programming.

Though the facility will be the first of its kind in the region, the concept isn't new. There are more than 200 kitchen incubators across the country, like Foodworks Brooklyn and Detroit Kitchen Connect. Such facilities provide prospective food business owners with the tools they need to legitimize and launch their ventures as well as crucial business development support and education.

And what's good for aspiring food entrepreneurs is good for downtown Rochester, according to O'Sullivan. "Our programming is a means of getting people downtown on weeknights and weekends," she says.

The idea for The Commissary began back in April 2016, when Rochester was selected for the Rose Fellowship, a program run by the Rose Center for Public Leadership, which provides cities with insight and analysis to improve their downtowns. The Rose Fellowship invited the mayors of four cities — Rochester; Birmingham, Alabama; Denver, Colorado; and Long Beach, California — to hear its recommendations on jump-starting development in their respective downtown areas. The recommendations for Rochester largely focused on the Broad Street Aqueduct, Main Street, and the Genesee riverfront, but the Fellowship also recommended launching a kitchen incubator in order to jump-start growth in the food and beverage industry downtown.

"Food and drink leads the way to street vitality," O'Sullivan says, noting that the growing downtown residential population (about 7,000 now) demands places to dine and to socialize. O'Sullivan, who has a background in urban planning, was familiar with the kitchen incubator concept and with the food industry — her husband, Marty O'Sullivan, is the owner of Marty's Meats.

Development costs for the project total about $1.2 million, with funding coming in large part from donations and state grants. Once The Commissary is up and running, it will be self-sustained by revenue from kitchen rentals, cooking classes, and special events, says O'Sullivan.

Though The Commissary is not yet accepting applications for membership, O'Sullivan anticipates being able to host some 50 entrepreneurs – including food truck operators, bakers, caterers, and home-based food businesses looking to expand their operations. Members will be able to sign up for shifts of a minimum of four hours, with rates at about $20 per hour. (O'Sullivan says that rate may be higher or lower depending upon what kind of equipment the members are using during their shifts). Members will also have the option to rent a kitchen station exclusively for one month at a time. The facility will be open 24 hours a day, with extra security in place for members working the "graveyard shift," O'Sullivan says.

In addition to kitchen space, Commissary members will also have access to support and guidance as their businesses take shape. The Commissary is partnering with more than 20 local organizations — including the Rochester Brainery, Kiva Rochester, and PathStone Enterprise Center — to provide business incubation services, food sector mentoring, and access to products and services. The organization's workshop series has already begun at the RIT Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, located inside the historic Rochester Savings Bank, and so far has covered food photography, social media for food business, and the permit process for food business professionals. The workshops are taught by Rochester-area entrepreneurs and are open for anyone to attend.

Members will also be able to use the performance kitchen to prepare pop-up restaurants to bring in casual visitors to The Commissary. According to O'Sullivan, this will not only give prospective food entrepreneurs the chance to try out their products on the "built-in audience" of 48,000 people who work downtown, but also give new dining options for center-city employees and residents. O'Sullivan envisions setting up food carts outside the Metropolitan, where Commissary members can sell their creations at lunchtime.

Construction for The Commissary is due to start this winter, and O'Sullivan and the advisory board expect the facility to open in mid-2018. Workshop videos and announcements, as well as progress updates on the project, are available on The Commissary's website.

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