After witnessing the success of kitchen incubators in towns with similar demographics such as Florence, Alabama and Athens, Ohio, the city of West Memphis has developed plans to revitalize the depressed Arkansas delta by building its own 6,000 square foot kitchen incubator.
Kitchen incubators are licensed facilities that lease time to local entrepreneurs, such as caterers and packaged food manufacturers. Currently Arkansas producers of jams and jellies, dips and other local foodstuffs found in regional gift shops and tourist centers often travel to eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to create their wares. Sometimes local food entrepreneurs use their personal kitchens, violating health codes and making them vulnerable to expensive fines. The kitchen incubator will offer an affordable, licensed facility to entrepreneurs who can’t afford to build a private facility. Delta Cuisine, the nonprofit behind the project, also plans to provide training in basic business finances and product marketing and promotion.
The incubator will be funded through a joint effort of Main Street West Memphis, Delta Regional Authority, Mid South Community College, the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, Arkansas State University, and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Investments and commitments to date total more than $1 million, and Senator Mark Pryor has requested an additional $880,500 from Congress towards this project.
According to Beth Wiedower, a Delta Cuisine representative, the project follows four years of research and development. The exploratory study commissioned by the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service can be downloaded here. The city’s return will be “increased economic activity in the region and a higher skilled workforce,” said Wiedower. “There’s real need and excitement around this project. I’ve spoken with three caterers with home kitchen operations that were shut down in the past six months. For many people in the area, this incubator can’t come soon enough.”
Construction will be fast-tracked, with a proposed opening date at the end of 2012. In addition to Arkansas, the incubator will serve southern Missouri and Memphis.