EDITORIALS

Maine: The way business could be

Cheryl Wixson (left) and and her husband Phillip McFarland produce marinara sauce under the name of Cheryl Wixson Kitchen at the Coastal Farms and Foods facility in Belfast.
Cheryl Wixson (left) and and her husband Phillip McFarland produce marinara sauce under the name of Cheryl Wixson Kitchen at the Coastal Farms and Foods facility in Belfast. Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 12, 2013, at 2:54 p.m.

People starting businesses can get caught in the chicken-or-egg dilemma. They need capital to create and sell their product, but they must have a well-developed product to get the capital.

Others may have ideas about how to expand their food-related business but don’t want to purchase the expensive equipment needed to create and test whether the new toffee or cookie packages will be successful.

Other times, all people want is a kitchen. Maybe they need to hold a cooking class. Or maybe a chef wants to test out a new line of soups without cluttering her restaurant space.

That’s where food processor incubators — or community kitchens — come in. The facilities, such as Coastal Farms and Food Inc. in Belfast, which Maine’s U.S. House delegation toured last week, must meet sanitation, temperature-control and food-quality requirements, granting those who rent them the freedom to experiment economically.

They are economic development tools — and job creators — in areas where a number of people benefit from access to similar technology, storage needs and gear. The entrepreneurs don’t have to buy pricey equipment when they’re first starting out; they can usually receive mentoring help from the owners of the space; it’s easier to access financing; and they can build connections with those doing similar work.

Four out of five small business start-ups fail within the first five years. About 80 percent of enterprises cultivated by an incubator, however, continue through those first five years.

“This is a great chance for job growth at the local level,” said Ron Dyer, director of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The number of people operating and participating in community kitchens appears to be growing.

There is plenty of room to continue the growth, though, and Dyer is used to fielding calls from people wanting to know how and whether to start a community kitchen in their community. Of Maine’s 7,000 home and small-business food processors licensed to sell food to the public, only 10 or 12 of them are community kitchens, Dyer said.

Like airbnb, where travelers can book the spare room in your house, or ZipCar, which is a car-sharing service in certain cities, community kitchens work when they’re cheaper than the alternative and driven by shared demands.

On Tuesday, economist Charles Colgan spoke about Maine’s dire need to not just retain young people but to attract them from out of state. As the state with the highest median age, Maine needs 60,000 new arrivals over the next 20 years to stay afloat, he said.

It also needs to increase productivity. “The issue here is not just the wages, not just the physical number of people. We are going to have to have smarter, quicker and more productive workers. If we cannot compete on quantity, we are going to have to compete on quality,” Colgan said.

Community kitchens and food processor incubators are, granted, a small part of what it will take to help increase productivity and launch businesses that people young or old will sustain. But the model is right: a springboard for people to grow their enterprises that’s built off local needs. The incubators need not be used solely for food; the structure extends to machinery, environmental technology, information technology and many others.

Incubators are an option for selectmen, chambers of commerce, county officials and well-connected locals to keep in mind. Entrepreneurs can’t use the community kitchens forever — eventually they must make it on their own — but at least there is a resource present to help them through, when the odds aren’t in their favor.

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