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What Are Food Incubators and Do They Create Viable Businesses?

How the tech-inspired model translates to kitchens.

Elizabeth Crane is a writer, editor, proofreader, fact-checker, word nerd, and nitpicker. She joined Vox alongside the acquisition of Recode in 2015, came over to the style and standards team as a senior editor, and in 2022 added the title of crosswords editor.

It’s a good time to be in the specialty foods business. Retail sales in the United States were worth over $85 billion in 2014 and, overall, $42 billion in sales came from mainstream stores like Target or Costco. Some of these specialty foods can be found in stores from Alaska to West Virginia. Others never make it farther than their local farmers market. But there’s one thing they all have in common — they were started by real people who had an idea for a business and made it happen.

This is not your average Lunchables or Cheetos: Conceived, sold and marketed on a large scale by massive companies. Specialty foods are typically high-value and, at least in the beginning, low production. Though it may seem easy to start a brownie assembly line in your home kitchen, many states require a commercial kitchen to sell at a larger venue than the local market. Starting a commercial kitchen from scratch can cost up to $100,000 — far more than the average food entrepreneur has to spend before even making their first batch of salsa.

This need for low-cost kitchen space has led to the development of shared commercial kitchens that can be rented for hourly or monthly rates. But finding a place to make specialty food products is only the first step. Entrepreneurs who want to make a profit have to successfully package, market and sell their products, too. That’s where food incubators come in.

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