January 23, 2016

Spice Kitchen adds flavor to SLC food scene

An entrepreneur prepares her traditional food at the Spice Kitchen for a catering event.|Entrepreneurs Kamal and Geeta make their vegetable samosas at Spice Kitchen in preparation for World Refugee Day Festival, held last summer at Liberty Park.  													Photo courtesy of Spice Kitchen Incubatoratering event.|| An entrepreneur prepares her traditional food at the Spice Kitchen for a catering event.|Entrepreneurs Kamal and Geeta make their vegetable samosas at Spice Kitchen in preparation for World Refugee Day Festival, held last summer at Liberty Park.   Photo courtesy of Spice Kitchen Incubatoratering event.|| |||

When my friend Ze Min Xiao (who goes by “Zee”) enthusiastically told me about the Spice Kitchen Incubator a few years ago, the project was only a concept. Now, as she gives me a tour of this 4,000-foot space on the west side of Salt Lake City, complete with a top-of-the-line commercial kitchen, her sense of optimism from seeing that concept come to reality is contagious.

The “Spice” in Spice Kitchen Incubator stands for “Supporting the Pursuit of Innovative Culinary Entrepreneurs.” This program offers refugees and immigrants the tools to transform their culinary passion into a legitimate business. It is the first of its kind in Utah, and only one of a handful in the United States.

The Spice Kitchen Incubator came about through a partnership between The International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency, and Salt Lake County. Ze Min Xiao, Salt Lake County’s Community Innovation Manager and Refugee Services Liaison, and IRC Development Manager Natalie El-Deiry modeled the program after the successful La Cocina in the Mission District of San Francisco.

La Cocina began in 2005 with the belief that the members of their community, if given the right resources, could create self-sufficient businesses that benefited themselves, their families and their communities. They saw the vibrant immigrant community around them and knew that it was a tremendous asset just waiting to be tapped into. Now, years later they are home to over 30 up-and-coming businesses, have brought many jobs to their community and introduced thousands of customers to flavors from all over the world. La Cocina has stayed in contact with the Spice Kitchen from the earliest stages of development and mentored them as they have grown.

Zee says, “We saw that Salt Lake was becoming a kind of “foodie city,” that people were venturing out to taste Burmese food, Ethiopian food and all kinds of things. So we knew that there was a demand for it, but not a supply, and we knew that one of the biggest barriers entrepreneurs face is having access to a commercial kitchen.”

The Spice Kitchen concept was a natural next step for Zee, who has experience with New Roots (another International Rescue Committee program that supports refugees by providing access to small urban farms and community gardens, allowing them to grow and sell produce that is uniquely familiar to them).

The Spice Kitchen Incubator is funded mainly through the private sector, which allows them to keep the program grounded in its goal of assisting participants, without making them jump through additional hoops. The only stipulation to applying for the Incubator Program is that the prospective participant has a low to moderate income. When considering the applications, Zee says that it boils down to two things:

“How serious are they about participating in the program and how good is the food?” She smiles when she says the last bit, and it tells me that to her….it is all about the food!

Program Coordinator Genevieve Healey agrees, stating that what they are really looking for is the “entrepreneurial spirit,” something she says helps carry participants through the challenging process of starting their own business. She also raves about the program and how they now have participants from Burma, Nepal, Venezuela and more.

The Spice Kitchen Incubator’s program consists of three stages: Pre-Incubator, Incubator and Graduation.

In the Pre-Incubator stage the program provides workshops, one-on-one technical assistance on business plans, product and menu development and financial planning. This stage supports the participant as they follow the path to a Business License, which then allows them to proceed to the Incubator stage.

In the Incubator stage participants benefit from the program in a number of ways. For a subsidized rate, they are given access to a wonderful commercial kitchen complete with commercial ovens and stoves, secured storage, and both a walk in freezer and refrigerator. They are assisted with marketing and business planning as well as set up with mentors and other valuable resources in the community. Lastly, they are allowed to participate in the many events Spice coordinates including booths at three local outdoor markets and catering jobs.

After this comes Graduation, where the participants are encouraged to mentor and stay connected to the program. While the length of time in the program varies, the participant can remain in the program for a maximum of 5 years.

With the assistance of Salt Lake County and the funding of many generous private donors, Spice Kitchen Incubator is giving some of Utah’s immigrants the opportunity to add vibrancy and flavor to our community. The program is also funded in part by the space itself, which can be rented at a reasonable rate for events or by local entrepreneurs in need of a commercial kitchen.