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Once used to prepare meals for members
of the elegant and exclusive Pickwick
Club in downtown Niles, Michigan, the
12,000-square-foot kitchen with its gleaming stainless
steel workstations and professional-grade appliances
is now available for anyone with a desire to be
the next Mrs. Fields.

Opened last year, the Niles Entrepreneur & Culinary
Incubator (NECI) has already seen several
clients move to the next level in their endeavor to
become successful food entrepreneurs

Andrea Martin didn’t initially plan on starting
a business. She just wanted to avoid feeding
her children foods containing genetically modified
grains, chemicals and preservatives whose names she
couldn’t pronounce and decidedly unhealthy ingredients
like high-fructose corn syrup. And so she created
a granola recipe that first wowed her family and
then friends.

“Everyone that I gave it to said it was the best granola,”
Martin recalls. “So I thought I’d try selling it.”
Naming her product Gathering Grains Artisan
Granola, Martin first sold it at the French Market, a
seasonal farmers market in Niles. Success led Martin
to try creating a wholesale market for her product.
To do so, she signed up for incubator space, but

also partook of NECI’s training opportunities. She
was able to place her granola in local stores like the
Shelton’s Farm Market in Niles, the Watervliet Fruit
Exchange, Utopia Coffee Shop in Dowagiac now.
and the Granger Farmers Market.

Her biggest coup came when Whole Foods opened a store
earlier this year in South Bend and put her granola
on the shelf.

“When we started the French Market, we discovered
that a lot of people wanted to start being able to
sell what they made but couldn’t because they didn’t
have a professional kitchen to use in making their
products,” says Lisa Croteau, program manager for
Niles Main Street, an organization whose mission is to
revitalize the city’s historic downtown. “So we looked
around for a place to have a kitchen incubator.”
Croteau had talked to other communities with
culinary incubators and seen the statistics, including
a report by the U.S. Small Business Administration
stating that businesses launched by entrepreneurs
acting on their own have only a 20% chance of surviving
five or more years.
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“Because it’s an entrepreneurial incubator, we
work with people to help them be the most successful
they can be,” says Croteau as we walk past a doubledoor
convection oven, walk-in cooler, 10-burner gas
stove top and oven, proofer, freezer and 20-quart Hobart mixer.

“You can make the best cookie in the world but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a successful business. This gives people the chance to find out before investing in a culinary kitchen.”

NECI courses include such subjects as business planning, finance, marketing and food production assistance, all to help get their clients licensed by the Department of Agriculture so they can sell their
products.

“You have to present to the Department of Agriculture every step you’re going to take, where you’ll buy your flour, how you will store it, how will you package it,” says Croteau.

Open 24/7 and charging by the hour, the kitchen lets people schedule their time when it’s convenient for them. Besides a place to prepare food, the kitchen area has a packaging station. And, says Croteau, they’re always ready to consider adding new equipment.

“Right now we’re getting a 40-gallon fitted-jacket steam kettle,” she says. “It will let people make sauces, and someone is investigating doing fruit butters. We’ve seen such success and see it making a difference not only for individuals but also for our community.”
Travel/food writer Jane Simon Ammeson lives in Stevensville, Michigan, and is a member of the Indiana Foodways Alliance, a restaurant reviewer
for Gayot.com and is also a James Beard Foundation judge. Follow Jane HPFood @HPAmmeson