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Commercial kitchen project to make business easier for area chefs | Business

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Commercial kitchen project to make business easier for area chefs
Commercial kitchen project to make business easier for area chefs

MADISON, Wis. - A rich smell of roasting nuts wafts through the air as small business owner Nicole Drives busily prepares for the holiday season.

Drives, now 23, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2011 with a dietetics degree. While coping with uncertainty about what to do next, she went nuts. Literally.

“My grandma has been making a spiced nut confection for over 40 years now, and the past 10 years or so our family has been telling her she should start a business since everyone loves them so much,” Drives said.

Drives acted on the family’s idea and turned years spent in her grandmother’s kitchen into the foundation of a nut business. And in the process she noticed the lack of a commercial community kitchen in Madison for entrepreneurs like herself -- a void that may soon be filled.

Lala’s Nuts, named after Drives’ grandmother, sells pecans from Georgia and certified organic walnuts from California. Each kind of nut comes in two flavors using local spices: sugar n’ spice or bodacious bourbon. Drives said they would have liked to use local nuts, but the limited number of nut farms in Wisconsin produce too small a volume.

Learning how to transform the nuts from a snack her grandmother made to a salable product required research. One of her biggest hurdles was making the nuts in a licensed kitchen. As with many start-up businesses, Drives did not want to invest in a private kitchen right away, so she turned to a shared licensed kitchen space, a kitchen incubator.

Kitchen incubators offer spaces to rent out by the hour, as well as support for people to design a plan and get their business rolling. They are designed to allow small businesses to stabilize and, when they are ready, move to a private kitchen.

According to Ellen Barnard, former Madison Northside Planning Council co-chair, there are no such incubators in the Madison area. In order to produce their nuts, Drives and her mother make a 45-minute trip to the Watertown Farm Market Kitchen.

Barnard is now project chair for the Madison’s first kitchen incubator, Madison Food Enterprise & Economic Development (FEED) Kitchen. FEED plans to break ground on the north side in March and open in the beginning of August 2013.

FEED will offer five different types of commercial kitchen spaces that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support a variety of food business ventures and other food related services, such as community use and educating. FEED will also have on-site frozen, cold and dry storage for users.

Although the fundraising goal has not been met, Barnard anticipates FEED Kitchen’s remaining financial needs will be secured by the time they break ground. Barnard’s goal is to open the facility with little to no debt in order to support low-income and non-profit users of the facility. FEED would like to be able to award scholarships for the classes hosted at the kitchens.

“Kitchen owners do a great job of trying to make it as easy as possible for people that are starting a food business,” Drives said. “The owner of the Watertown location made us feel confident that it was something we could do and succeed in.”

Drives is looking forward to the opening of the new Madison kitchen incubator and plans to get on the waiting list. Right now, it takes about 8 hours to produce 50 pounds of Lala’s Nuts, and eliminating the 45-minute commute on either side would be a welcome timesaver.

“It will be tremendously busy,” Barnard said of FEED’s potential use. “We already have an extensive waiting list as well as four anchor tenants who plan to work in the kitchen from 10 to 20 hours a week. It is a possibility we will outgrow the facility, which is a good goal to have.”

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