Sussex Kitchen Incubator fires up entrepreneurship
© 2023 Delaware Business Times
GEORGETOWN — Erica Kirlin’s new business, Beachin Bash, was taking off like a rocket.
The full-service event planning company accelerated when it opened in 2020, with people eager to try new outdoor experiences like a luxury beach picnic or bonfire. But when Kirlin decided to expand the catering side last summer with sister company Beach Bae, led by head chef Erikah Fitz, the business kept growing with corporate lunches, bachelorette parties and taco bars.
“We were averaging 10 to 15 events a week, and we had no idea how busy we’d be,” Kirlin said. “We really didn’t want to invest in the overhead of a commercial kitchen. If you can find the space, rent is in the thousands, and that’s not including the equipment and permitting.”
That’s when the Sussex Kitchen Incubator caught her eye. Located at the Carter Partnership Center at Delaware Technical Community College’s Georgetown campus, the 1,800-square-foot commercial kitchen is a turnkey operation for restaurant startups that are looking to refine their goods or need space to scale up. With three prep stations, the incubator has all the equipment on hand and has all the state licenses needed.
“It’s a dream being here because you can just book the hours and have what you need without making the investment in time and money,” Kirlin said. “Eventually, we’d love to find a space, but we’re comfortable here. Things are starting to pick up again for holiday parties and corporate events.”
Right now, Beach Bae is one of two dozen businesses that are members of the kitchen incubator, each paying a $300 monthly fee with additional costs for more use and storage hours. Up to three businesses can use the incubator at the same time.
Other businesses that already use the space include Coastal Key Lime Pie that plans to ship nationwide, a charcuterie business, soul food restaurant A Taste of Jazz, and manufacturers of homemade hot sauce, jam and jellies and more. Sussex County and state officials gathered on Tuesday afternoon to literally break bread to commemorate the incubator’s opening.
For years, Sussex County Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff had been lobbying for the kitchen incubator project within county government. When he worked at the Delaware Small Business Development Center in coordination with University of Delaware, he worked with several business owners struggling to find cost-effective ways to start their food startup.
“What we’re doing here is removing all the barriers from an entry point. You have to be a member, which makes you have skin in the game at the end of the day,” Pfaff said. “Our community is filled with incredible, talented individuals who are passionate about food and sharing it with others. [This incubator] will bring flavor and cuisine to our communities, while creating sustainable pathways to grow the food economy here in Sussex County.”
Sussex County also hired Jim Richards as the kitchen incubator manager to oversee operations as well as providing some guidance to budding food entrepreneurs. Richards was trained at the Culinary Institute of America and his resume includes running Big Fish Restaurant Group’s commissary as well as restaurant Casa Amici.
Richards serves as a go-between between the rising business owners in the incubators and the state when it comes to permitting, using his 40-year career in the food service industry as a signal of trust. He also sees himself as a mentor to entrepreneurs in terms of how to upscale products, where to source ingredients and figuring out logistics of transportation and price points.
“A lot of people just say that’s what it costs to make, but I ask about the box to put it in, the label and the branding,” Richards told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s a lot more cost-involved than just making the product, and it’s something you have to factor in so you can make a profit. You don’t want to underprice, but you have to go with what the market will bear. There’s that nice margin you have to find.”
Sussex Council President Michael Vincent (R-Georgetown/Seaford) touted the opening of the incubator as a win for small businesses in the county, especially those in the rural areas that may not have the resources to find their own kitchen.
“Otherwise they would have been at home, but they wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with Jim or be in a commercial-grade kitchen that is licensed to serve it. It’s a great thing to give the residents of Sussex a place to store and make food that doesn’t cost a lot of money. These are small businesses, which is what our economy is these days,” Vincent said.
The incubator’s opening also comes right on the heels as Southern Delaware Tourism has launched a new initiative, Culinary Coast, to highlight restaurants, farm-to-table ventures and more as the county’s reputation grows among foodies.
“These people will be part of a hidden gem in Delaware, and this place will be a piece of it,” Vincent added. “This is a place where they can come and make a product and maybe even supply one of these restaurants one day.”
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