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Portland Made: Food Incubator, Kitchen Cru

Monday, April 27, 2015

 

For the past 6 weeks we have focused on the home and lifestyle goods sector of our local Maker economy. For the next 6 weeks we will turn our attention to the food and beverage industry, and share the stories of the people behind the products being produced in Portland. Although the term manufacturing is hard to use with food products because it sounds so industrial, it is actually appropriate because there is a production process that requires increased sophistication in processing and distribution.

We have been reading a lot recently about Ecotrust’s The Redd, a working hub for the regional food economy. For those of you who are well versed in the issues with connecting locally grown food with urban markets, you are aware that processing and distribution are huge hurdles. It is very hard to make a living as a farmer, and it is equally challenging as a restauranteur to use local ingredients and still make a profit. The Redd hopes to overcome some of these barriers by creating a facility that fosters the production of value added food products in an environment similar to ADX, where entrepreneurs are given affordable access to the space, tools and professional resources they need to thrive. The tools may be different but the concept is the same, and like ADX, Ecotrust has strong values in community building and sustainability, so we are imagining so great collaborations with our new neighbor in the hot hot hot Central Eastside.

Nobody understands the needs of food entrepreneurs more than Michael Madigan of Kitchen Cru. He has been doing this for the past 4 years (interestingly, they opened the same year ADX did) and there are many success stories beginning to emerge from their 5000 square foot facility on the park blocks.

Portland Made contributing writer, Peggy Acott, had a chance to talk more with Michael Madigan about the evolution of Kitchen Cru and what the future holds.

After twenty-six years working in the computer tech world, Michael Madigan decided to make a change and combine his love of food and wine and his skills in advising and helping start-up businesses get on their feet. This was in 2008, about the time that food carts started to make their appearance in real and growing numbers around Portland.

Madigan found that many startups were “needing to learn to monetize” their business. This fact wasn’t exclusive to those in the food industry, but Madigan discovered there wasn’t a specific place for food carts, caterers and makers of specialty products to get the mentorship they needed for their specific business challenges. In addition, there was a lack of available commercial kitchen space in Portland, which was a huge stumbling block for many food-related start-ups.

He started out by visiting farmers markets and food festivals, talking to farmers and local food product producers, seeing what had been difficult for them getting started, what they still needed to learn about running a business. 

The biggest challenge Madigan faced was that there was no existing model for business systems specific to startups in the food industry. And though there were similarities, there were also crucial differences between caterers, bakers and makers of specialty products to take into consideration. So he built it slowly, and relied on a lot of networking and collaborating. “Portland is unique, in that people are cooperative in everything.” He didn’t find the sense of competitiveness he had found in other, larger cities. So he was able to establish a lot of helpful relationships with retail markets, designers, marketing and accounting mentors to serve his program. 

The cooks and chefs that come to KitchenCru all tend to need somewhat different things from the program. Typically the multi-kitchen space can handle between seven and nine chefs simultaneously (and there is usually a roster of thirty to thirty-five total members). While that may sound a bit chaotic, Madigan has discovered that “the community tends to form itself organically,” and what works best is if there is a mix – bakers and caterers, canners and other specialty product producers – not only because they could learn from each other and creatively solve problems, but they also tended to support each other by using each other’s products.  

KitchenCru’s reputation of quality is well established. When stores and markets learn that someone interested in being a vendor has gone through KitchenCru program, there is “an open door” of immediate interest. The individual chef or producer still has to be accepted on his or her own merit, but the KitchenCru experience has proved to be a valuable and positive introduction.

What is Madigan’s measure of success? His “ah-hah” moment is when one of the members comes to him and says one of two things:

“I just quit my job. I’m ready to do this full time.” 

“Guess what? We’re moving out. We’re ready.”

Leaving the nest is part of the process, but many of the incubators in Portland also recognize the ongoing struggles these businesses face. Very few strike it big, and for those that have the 3, 5 and 10 year marks to struggle towards, there seems to be a need for ongoing mentorship.

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Kelley Roy is the founder of ADX, a 14,000 square foot Makerspace where artists and designers work along side each other to prototype and launch new product lines. ADX is also open to the general public and teaches people of all ages how to make. And if you don't want to do it yourself, you can hire them to do it for you. For more information check out adxportland.com. 

Portland Made is a digital storytelling platform and advocacy center for Portland's Maker Movement. We do 2 features a month on Portland Makers; connect makers with more local, national and international markets; connect makers with local professional and manufacturing resources; advocate for makers with politicians at all levels of government; work with PSU on an annual survey that captures the economic power of the Maker Movement; help makers find real estate; and promote Portland makers with local and national media. 

*all photos from Kitchen Cru’s website kitchencru.biz

 

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