It was an out-of-the-blue request and a Kijiji ad that led Alexandra Pelts to co-create Toronto's newest food incubator.
A couple of years ago, a customer of her catering business asked to rent the company's kitchen to cook for a wedding.
Ms. Pelts and her business partner Steve Kidron agreed and soon received another request. This time it was from a local catering company who wanted to rent their kitchen regularly. They did so for almost two years. This got the business owners thinking.
"If a successful catering company that we saw was doing well and was busy doesn't have anywhere to cook, who else in the field of food service and food business has the business, has great ideas, but doesn't have a commercial kitchen to materialize their ideas?" Ms. Pelts wondered.
She tested the water by advertising space on Kijiji – and got more than 300 responses in a year. They were from culinary students, test kitchens for major businesses – even a company testing burgers made from insects.
Next month she's opening Kitchen24 in North York with Mr. Kidron and business manager Madeline Boltyansky. At 28,000 square feet, it's the incubator they couldn't offer in their old smaller space. And, she says, something Toronto needs.
Food incubators are commercial kitchen spaces that companies or individuals rent. They're often booked by culinary students who want to test their own recipes, catering companies that don't want to invest in their own kitchens until they're more established and chefs looking to try out new menu items without taking up space and resources in their own restaurant.
They also allow food entrepreneurs to try – or fail – to create businesses at relatively little cost. Food incubators themselves, however, can be risky investments.
Debbie Field is the executive manager of FoodShare, a non-profit food incubator and community centre that has been working with entrepreneurs for 20 years. She believes in the service, but cautions it's not an easy path. While incubators are common throughout the United States, they're less so in Canada and there's little government support.
The Kitchen24 team hopes to find a niche in the local market by supporting both business and the community, something other incubators haven't done. FoodShare focuses on the community and has limited kitchen hours, while another local incubator, Food Starter, focuses mainly on production.
When they work well, incubators have a powerful role helping stabilize struggling food businesses.
"The hardest part has been seeing great companies come and go and not make it," says Ms. Field, noting she's seen hundreds of the businesses that approach FoodShare fail and only some succeed.
"Many people who are in food business, they operate on the passion, as we do … but hardly any of them have a business sense," Ms. Pelts says. "And it's one thing to know how to cook well, another thing is how do you tell the world that you have this product."
To bridge this gap, Kitchen24 is in the process of partnering with mentors to create a program that will give new entrepreneurs the skills to succeed in Toronto's business market, such as an understanding of finances and the ability to make a business plan.
The new company has two commercial kitchens, one of which is kosher, as well as a lounge, office space, classrooms and a food photography studio. It can accommodate 100 people working at a time.
The Kitchen24 team plans to give back to the community by holding events such as cooking competitions, low-cost workshops on nutrition and community Mondays, in which they teach families to can rejected farmers' market goods.
Jordie McTavish is an agent with Plutino Group that represents Canadian chefs. She says that by placing well-equipped kitchens by classroom space, Kitchen24 fills a gap in Toronto's culinary venues.
"There's just so many uses of that space that it really shows us something that we haven't seen in Toronto."