Every morning, lumbering vehicles pull up to the 100-year-old elementary school in Warren, carrying that most precious cargo: Rhode Island’s future. I’m talking of course of canning jars, spices and desiccated coconut. It’s been 18 months since Hope & Main became Rhode Island’s only food business incubator and as the traffic shows, it’s already beginning to pay dividends. Like most new information I’m confronted with, when I first heard of Hope & Main, I thought of it purely in terms of food. As it turns out though, what we have in Hope & Main is a manufacturing hub, leveraging Rhode Island’s strengths – culinary excellence, fantastic farm produce, robust direct-to-consumer food sales and tourist dollars – to give our entrepreneurs and our state a competitive advantage.
From Soup to Nuts
Many of the well-documented benefits of incubators are amplified when it comes to tightly regulated food production. The same oversight which protects the public health means barriers to entry in the food industry that heighten costs and risks for a new business. Wowing friends at a dinner party with culinary prowess might require real talent, depending on the friends, but it definitely doesn’t require any sort of certification. Our economy needs more of this passion to be translated to a commercial setting with products that go to market.
Lisa Raiola, President and Founder of Hope & Main, has devoted much of the last decade to addressing this need. Her own struggles to start up a food business led her to the relatively new idea of food incubators, and her search for kitchen space to the unused schoolhouse in Warren. In many ways, her years of learning on the fly and struggling to get Hope & Main off the ground make her a tailor-made leader for an incubator.
As she puts it, “we’re a startup of startups.” She describes what Hope & Main does as helping its makers “go from recipe to product to brand to business.” Lisa recalls how one of the startups, La Piccola Toscana, started with “Gee, I have my grandmother’s pasta sauce recipe, everyone tells me its great and I should sell it.” It’s that long road from a simmering pot in a kitchen to commercial production where Hope & Main comes in. They’ve got the onboarding process (including certification and licensing), determining packaging, labelling, product testing and more, down to a streamlined three months.
The Fruits, Pickles and Popcorn of Their Labor
This sort of support is bearing fruit. Well, more specifically jam, chimichurri, pickles, popcorn… you get the point. While the $3 million USDA loan that kicked off the project is nothing to sniff at, this relatively modest investment is
already having the multiplying effect that it was meant to. That makes a big difference in a little state. Lisa is proud to rattle off the Department of Health statistics: from January 2015 to February 2016, of the 103 food processing licenses that were granted for businesses domiciled in Rhode Island, 43 of them were at Hope & Main. In addition to the creation of these direct jobs, manufacturing creates indirect jobs more than other sectors like service. There are a host of businesses enjoying the warmth of the incubator from the outside: supply and shipping companies, business consultants, website designers, graphic artists, product photographers and even product liability insurers.
These benefits will only increase as the businesses at Hope & Main expand. Even with more than 70 startups, they are still not at capacity and this is by design. Businesses need room to grow. The increasing demand for kitchen time from the larger startups, or what Lisa calls the “anchor makers,” will be met with the construction of a fourth kitchen in the facility thanks to a recent $100,000 grant from The RI Commerce Corporation. One of these anchor makers, Sacred Cow: The Holy Granola Experience, have gone from a single employee using 12-15 hours of kitchen time a month to five or six, and over 100 hours. Lisa gleefully reports “they are just cranking out granola over there.”
Cooking Up Solutions
While Hope & Main’s deliberate onboarding process is hugely important, just as significant are the benefits startups get simply from concentrating entrepreneurial endeavor. When you put dozens of companies in one place, all working through similar problems to similar goals, solutions come faster. There are litanies of little problems that pop up, and Hope & Main is a think tank for solving them just by talking to the other makers. Where to get your jars? Ziggy at Fox Point Pickles will point you in the right direction. Questions on salsa production? Rich at Tito’s has been at it for years.
There’s also an emotional component to running a business, and being in an enthusiastic space is infectious, especially in discouraging times. Every maker I’ve talked to speaks warmly of being in a community of like-minded and supportive friends. Minnie Luong of Chi Kitchen simply says, “I found my tribe.”
Given the history of the building, what the makers have is best described as school spirit, and it’s only appropriate that some refer to makers of a given year as ‘classes’ and talk of how the sophomores and juniors help the freshmen.
It is clear that this space is one of collaboration not competition, and perhaps its most charming manifestation is the bartering after the monthly Meet Your Makers Markets. The various makers all keep different hours in the 24/7 kitchen, so these markets are the only time all the makers are in one place at the same time, selling to the local community. The end of the market becomes a swap fest. “That’s one of my favorite parts, is trading.” says Sophia Gartland of Essentially Coconut. As jars of coconut butter are traded for smoked fish, normal networking looks pretty grim by comparison.
Lisa agrees whole-heartedly that it’s not a case of one Hope & Main salsa maker against another. The real preserve-mongering nemesis? “I’ll go into a gift shop and there will be a whole wall of Stonewall Kitchen, and I’ll say how aggravating is that? That’s from Maine […] you aren’t supporting your local economy,” she says. In response, Hope & Main is beginning to build their own walls. Boutique food shops like the Pantry at Avenue N in Rumford feature vibrant displays of many Hope & Main products. Two products with a Hope & Main sticker are a novelty. Twenty are a competitive package, winning many small businesses new retail opportunities in one fell swoop. It also makes what Lisa calls a “halo effect” – Hope & Main starts to mean Rhode Island-made, innovative, quality food products.
It’s not just that wall in a gift shop that Hope & Main is concerned with, it’s a needless gap in Rhode Island’s economy. Lisa is confident we’re already on our way to filling it. “We say RI is a great food state, but I argue when we say it we mean it’s a great restaurant state, it’s a great hospitality state, but we aren’t known for food products or food manufacturing,” she says, “but now we will be. Believe me, we will be.”
Hope & Main
691 Main Street, Warren