Helping Urban Ag Businesses Stay Lean and Local

Crossroads Community Cafe

Founders and youth workers from Crossroads Community Cafe served delicious, healthy foods at Codman Square Farmer Market last summer.

Urban agriculture businesses—both start-ups and those in business for just a year or two—often need some help getting planted in the less-than-fertile city soil.

The ad hoc Boston-area discussion and problem-solving group started by Food Sol’s Rachel Greenberger is continuing to meet weekly. The inaugural meeting on January 16, 2014 was a great introduction to how the state of Massachusetts and city of Boston are supporting urban agriculture. At the January 30 gathering, the discussion focused on “lean start-ups.”

Attendees tended to fall into two categories – the entrepreneurs themselves and the various organizations and businesses that have sprung up to aid these entrepreneurs.

Some of the entrepreneurs who dropped in included Freight Farms (a hydroponic growing system in repurposed shipping containers), Something Gud (a delivery service for local food) , the Chicken and Rice Guys (a food truck), Fresh Truck  (a mobile healthy food market), and RePost (a new organic compost company).

Crop Circle Kitchen logoThe support groups in attendance included the Food Loft (a coworking space dedicated to food and food/tech startups in Boston’s South End), Conservation Law Foundation, Crop Circle Kitchen, as well as convener Food Sol and yours truly, Good Egg Marketing.

Although many of the people in the room are competing for customers, clients, vendors, and funding, the congenial atmosphere encourage everyone to share ideas and resources.

Fresh Food Generation logoFor example, two of the start-ups in attendance share a vision of bringing affordable, healthy cooked food to Boston’s inner city neighborhoods and hiring youth to work with them, but are using different approaches. Jackson Renshaw and Cassandria Campbell of Fresh Food Generation are launching a food truck that will serve healthy meals made with local ingredients to residents of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Young people from those communities will be hired to help operate the truck and lead food education campaigns.

Community activist Rachele Gardner and chef/recipe consultant Didi Emmons plan to launch the Crossroads Community Café as soon as they find a location in Dorchester’s Codman Square. Crossroads had a successful test run with a booth at the Codman Square Farmers Market this summer and a catering service.  They hired four local youth to prepare and serve smoothies, tacos, and salads at the market and do catering.  In addition to learning about cooking and business, youth were trained in life skills.

Crossroads Community Cafe

Crossroads Community Cafe

Unlike high-end restaurants, businesses serving low-income residents can’t pass the cost of sourcing local food on to their customers. While serving locally-grown food isn’t Crossroads’ #1 goal,  Emmons said, “We want local produce, because it’s healthier and tastes better.” The challenge, she said, is finding affordable local food.

Participants suggested they form partnerships to get donated or lower-cost local foods. “We’ve contacted  The Food Project, Serving Ourselves, and Mei Mei Street Kitchen,” Renshaw said. “They’ve all been willing to help us.” Freight Farms also suggested that Fresh Food Generation and Crossroads contact them, because some of the businesses using their containers may be willing to sell them their surplus produce.

Finding affordable legal advice is also a challenge for fledgling food businesses; a solution popped up for that, too. The Conservation Law Foundation is offering a matchmaking service to help local food start-ups obtain pro bono legal services. While the service isn’t available for food trucks or restaurants, the Harvard Transactional Law Clinic has a free guide for Food Truck start-ups in Boston.

Virtually all of my food clients have had trouble finding commercial kitchen space, but that problem may be easing soon. Crop Circle Kitchen (CCK), based at the Brewery Complex in Jamaica Plain, has provided technical support and kitchen incubator and commissary space for food businesses and food trucks since 2009. CCK currently serves 30 businesses, but has 40 businesses on a waiting list to rent space.

Later this year, CCK will begin operating out of a second commercial kitchen facility in Dorchester that will be three times the size and will offer additional services, such as food storage rental, specialized equipment, and private kitchen space. The Bornstein & Pearl Food Production Center is a project of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation and is led by Jen Faigel, a real estate and community economic development consultant.

“We’re going to open in April and support 50 businesses,” Faigel told the group. “We’ll have some dedicated kitchens for business that are ready to move up to bigger spaces, she said. “We’re also trying to start a gluten-free kitchen space.”

Like all food start-ups, however, even this new Pearl Street facility must stay lean. “We’re still looking for our last bit of funding,” Faigel added.

Hopefully, this ad hoc Food Sol group has a solution for that, too.

The Urban Agriculture drop-in discussion group will continue meeting on Thursdays, 10-11:30am, at least through February, at Babson College’s downtown space (253 Summer St, 3rd Fl, Boston). For more info, visit Food Sol or email Suzy Costello.

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