Needed: More Incubators! Especially for Food!
At a small business panel organized by Ward 4 Council Candidate Max Skolnik on Wednesday night, there was the usual carping about District regulatory processes and NIMBY neighbors as obstacles to entrepreneurial success, and the inevitable tirade or two against Walmart. The most helpful message, though, was more proactive: The District's aspiring businesspeople need space to get started.
That means shared offices for professionals, like we've seen with the Affinity Lab on U Street, the Hive in Anacostia, and a number of little tech hubs. But it could also mean cooperative workspace for tradespeople, like plumbers and refrigerator repairers. Or, even more promisingly: Shared kitchens for independent food operators, like small catering businesses, cake bakers, sauce makers, you name it. Cakelove founder Warren Brown, now in demand for every new development that wants a local-ish sweet shop, has been hoping for one for years.
"I wished for it so hard that I don't wish for it anymore," he said at the forum. "There are a lot of people who want to get into the food business but can't."
It's not a new concept. There's a whole blog about communal kitchens, most of which are in California. But other than D.C. Central Kitchen, there aren't any in the District. The thing is, they're really expensive to get started, so you either need an existing kitchen, or some kind of angel investor to get one built.
So far, the city hasn't taken any successful steps in that direction, like providing seed funding for one in a private building, or incorporating it into a community benefits package for a planned unit development, or writing a requirement for a shared kitchen into a request for proposals for excess property (Walter Reed or Parcel 42, anybody?). Most of the unemployment strategy seems focused on procurement: Making sure that District residents are hired on District-funded construction projects, and that agencies contract as much as possible with Certified Business Enterprises, of which there are only about 900 registered in the city. Oh, and begging existing businesses to hire local.
All good stuff. But there's only so much job creation the city can do with its own dollars. It's just as important to help people who want to sell to the rest of us to thrive.
Photo by flickr user rizzojn under a Creative Commons Attribution License.