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The Kitchen Project: Inside the tasty pilot project to promote sustainable development and healthier communities

A new initiative that offers affordable kitchen space and a mentoring programme is about a whole lot more than helping food and beverage businesses thrive – it’s also about promoting a sustainable food and business ecosystem and encouraging healthier communities. Say hello to The Kitchen Project.

 Top image: The Kitchen Project team (from left to right) of Ben Maw of Healthy Families, Emily King (Spira), Connie Clarkson (Panuku), Wendy Voegelin (ATEED) and Leiticia Landa (La Cocina).

The Kitchen Project, inspired by La Cocina in San Francisco – one of the most successful kitchen incubators in the United States – aims to enhance Auckland’s foodscape by supporting the development of food and beverage with a focus on culture, healthy food and sustainable business practices.

La Cocina deputy director Leiticia Landa – who has been advising The Kitchen Project – says for San Francisco communities, especially local migrant women, this type of incubator programme has been life-changing. “Over the past 12 years we have seen every kind of food business imaginable. By investing in emerging entrepreneurs and making our commercial kitchen more accessible we have seen 150 jobs created, 24 brick and mortar locations, and more than $4 million generated for the local economy.”

Several organisations are behind The Kitchen Project, including Panuku Development Auckland, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) and Healthy Families Manukau, Manurewa-Papakura and Healthy Families Waitakere in conjunction with local community groups. According to Connie Clarkson, project manager for The Kitchen Project and Panuku commercial operations manager, The Kitchen Project presents and opportunity to make the spaces being regenerated reflect the people that make up the communities. And, she says, it’ll help encourage healthier communities, particularly communities that historically have been neglected or otherwise underserved. “What goes in the mouth goes a long way towards keeping people healthy,” she says.

Sixteen applications were received for the first cohort of the programme, which is being piloted in Henderson out of a dedicated space in the Central One building on Henderson Valley Road.  Of those, five were accepted.

Clarkson says those taking part are incredibly impressive. Of the two packaged goods businesses and three edible products businesses, there’s a salsa maker who lived in the US for 16 years before returning to New Zealand, and a baker who made the cake to celebrate the 70th birthday of the famed White Lady food truck, which according to legend has been open every day for the past seven decades.

Clarkson explains there are two main components of The Kitchen Project: nine hours per week for six weeks of classroom experience on the ins and outs of running a food business (taught by leading industry experts who volunteer their time) that began on March 6, followed by 20 weeks of one-on-one mentoring. “It’s an initiative that actually helps emerging food businesses and be sustainable,” says Clarkson.

According to Clarkson, the food and beverage industry pumped about $6.9 billion into the New Zealand economy in 2012. In 2016, that number shot up to $8.9 billion – with about $3.3 billion of that coming from Auckland (not to mention employing more than 28,000 people in food and beverage processing and manufacturing, according to ATEED data).

Yet the reality, she says, is it remains incredibly difficult for businesses to succeed in the food and beverage industry, with just one-third of businesses lasting more than three years. “That’s not helpful in our economy.”

Aside from the individual human impact and business impact, Clarkson says The Kitchen Project can also help promote sustainable development of cities – and sustainability, full stop. Aside from being able to provide jobs and encourage high street development, successful food business that also make good food can encourage people to remain in their immediate area, reducing driving and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Then there’s this: “In constructing a city, we like to think that for every $1 we spend, we get $1 back,” explains Clarkson. But for The Kitchen Project, with all the above benefits, it comes out to about $4 back.

But here’s the thing: you can’t have a food business without access to a commercial kitchen. Unfortunately, Clarkson says renting commercial kitchen space can cost between $35 and $45 an hour – a cost that many food and beverage industry start-ups simply cannot afford. “One of the largest costs is renting commercial kitchen space.”

But The Kitchen Project has a 20-foot commercial kitchen container that was delivered in Henderson at 7am on Thursday morning.Designed by Host Services' Nick Stracchan in conjunction with Ben Maw of Healthy Families, it is available for just $10 per hour, and Clarkson says it can have two businesses working in it at once. “It’s about designing well for a space,” she explains. “It’s very important that a kitchen is functional.”

The Kitchen Project's commercial kitchen being delivered the morning of April 5.

ATEED acting general manager of Business, Innovation and Skills Pam Ford says accessing commercial kitchen space can be a barrier for emerging food entrepreneurs, who also need training about how to establish a food business. “The Kitchen Project will support the growth of food and beverage in Auckland through local communities, and consumer and supplier engagement. This will, in turn, increase employment and economic growth.”

Clarkson is quick to again point out that the goal is healthy, sustainable development that benefits people. “This is a slow burn,” she explains. “It’s not our goal to pepper the city with hundreds of food businesses in six months.”

Considering Bloomberg has recently praised the City of Sails as having a food ecosystem up there with Sydney in terms of quality, sustainability is the raison d’être indeed.

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