It's been a year since Hope & Main opened its doors in Warren. Located in the previously unoccupied Main Street School building, the food business incubator has generated some impressive economic results; over 50 new food businesses, $1.14 million poured into the lcoal economy and 75 new jobs.
To mark its first anniversary, these successes, as well as the centential of the Main Street School building, Hope & Main will be hosting Centennial Celebration on Sunday October 11. The turn-of-the-century themed fall festival – featuring everything from pie eating to old timey photo booths – will be open to all from 2pm-6pm, and will see appearances by Governor Gina Raimondo and Senator Jack Reed.
To put Hope & Main's first year into perspective, we chatted with presidenta nd founder Lisa Raiola about how the project came about, how expectations compared to the actual first-year numbers and what's in store for the future.
When the idea for Hope and Main came about, what were some of the initial goals? How and which of those goals have been met in the first year?
The seeds for Hope & Main were planted in 2009 when I first entered the Main Street School in Warren. It had been shuttered for many years. I was going to start my own food business at that time and needed about 2,500 square feet of commercial kitchen space to do it. I didn't need an 18,000 square foot elementary school! But as I stood in the hallway, in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, I thought of the possibilities of creating a shared-use space where lots of people like me could start small food businesses in a way that was less costly and less risky than all of the options I’d been exploring. Food businesses in RI must produce in a code-compliant kitchen in order to sell their products either wholesale or retail. That space is prohibitively expensive for most food business start-ups. So I saw the opportunity to share the burden of capitalization across many producers, as well as the opportunity to build a community of peer collaborators to support each other.
It took more than 3 years to raise the funds to renovate and transform the Main Street School. Most of the capital, $2.9 million, came in the form of a USDA Community Facilities Rural Development Loan. Hope & Main, a start-up of start-ups, cut the ribbon on its kitchens in October of 2014. One year later, we have launched 50 businesses and 39 of them are actively selling product. This has actually far exceeded our early expectations! By the capacity and throughout of the facility alone, Hope & Main has conservatively generated 75 jobs for the RI economy. Our most important achievement is the establishment of a "center of gravity” for food start-ups in Rhode Island." We are more than a rental kitchen. We are helping makers go from recipe to product to brand to business. This is a complex process, and we have developed not only an onramp, but a real road map to increase the odds of success for these entrepreneurs.
How has the response to Hope and Main been compared to what you were expecting/hoping for?
The response has been tremendous. We are deeply grateful to the food community for embracing our makers. A number of lenders from Nick Rabar of Avenue N to Todd Blount of Blount Fine Foods to Dave’s Market, have led workshops at Hope & Main. This is already solving one of the biggest challenges for new food producers, i.e., getting their products to market. We also continue to be delighted with consumer response. At our weekly Schoolyard Market, many of the Hope & Main vendors have sold out.
Going forward, what are your hopes for the next year of Hope and Main?
I want people to discover the products that are being made here. The quality is fantastic and you can taste the personality of the maker in every bite. Really. We also want aspiring food entrepreneurs to know that we are taking on new businesses all the time. There really is not a capacity issue here. Businesses start and stop. Some are seasonal. Some produce large batches. Our doors are open, and if you have a good food idea we want to meet you.
Since its the 100th anniversary of the Main Street School can you tell me a bit about the process of transforming the school and why it was chosen to be the location?
Truthfully, the location was serendipitous. As I said, I was not seeking to establish a food business incubator, but my own business. However, when the idea for Hope & Main came up, it turned out that the town of Warren was an ideal location due its rural classification according to USDA. Providence, for example is not rural and would not have qualified for the community facilities loan.
One of the benefits of locating in a school, is that we were able to preserve the classrooms. We have put these classrooms to good use to deliver workshops for our entrepreneurs, as well as to offer classes and cooking demonstrations to the entire community. We have developed a fabulous schedule of classes from gardening, to bee keeping, to nutrition and more for people of all ages who want to harness the more of local food. We offer a wide variety of classes and there’s something going on every week.
What were some surprises or challenges that came up during your first year?
One of the best surprises is the interest in Hope & Main from international food concerns. We have had at least three international companies rent the kitchens for both R&D and local production, because there is simply no place else to do this work. Ahold, the holding company for Stop & Shop and Giants Foods, used Hope & Main to develop products for the American palate. Renown French pastry chefs from Le Notre in Paris created 4,000 petit fours for a Newport fundraiser. Tom’s Baobao, a China-based steamed bun franchise, has partnered with us to train an American workforce. It’s incredible what a modest piece of infrastructure can accomplish for raising Rhode Island’s international food profile.
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