Low-income entrepreneurial New Yorkers are receiving job training and support to launch food businesses.
By Beth Krietsch
Forty five-year old Donna Davis is a mother of two. She’s a hardworking, self-proclaimed jill of all trades who’s dipped her feet in all kinds of work from radio hosting and DJing to community education and vegan catering.
She’s always wanted to get a full-time vegan food business off the ground, but without business training, a college degree, and money for various business costs, she struggled. She also lost part of her vision a few years ago, which made things even harder.
“In order to go to the next level I needed to do certain things,” Davis says, adding that she found it difficult to afford marketing, licensing, and other components key to business success. “And I felt like I’ve been walking in the same circle for the last 10 to 12 years of not being able to take it to the next level I needed to.”
To help afford housing, Davis receives Section 8 benefits, which are allotted to low- and moderate-income families based on gross income and family size. One day in early 2016 she was checking upcoming seminar offerings in the Section 8 office when a flyer for a program called Food Business Pathways caught her eye.
Food Business Pathways is a free 10-week food business course open to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents and Section 8 recipients who want to launch food businesses. The program helps pave the way for low-income entrepreneurial New Yorkers to establish these businesses by providing mentorship, education, access to capital, affordable space, and other components key to business success.
Started in January 2015, the program is a collaborative effort between NYCHA, the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS), and NYC Economic Development Corporation, with additional support from Citi Community Development, Hot Bread Kitchen, and Start Small Think Big.
The program has three main goals: to create targeted programs for NYCHApreneurs, to help these NYCHApreneurs become incubator-ready, and provide streamlined links to resources and custom curriculum that help enforce the connection between NYCHA businesses and New York City’s economy.
“The Food Business Pathways program empowers budding food entrepreneurs and connects them with the tools they need to succeed,” says Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services. “We are proud to partner with the New York City Housing Authority and its residents to provide business training and support that is helping these entrepreneurs reach their full potential.”
From each cohort, five graduates receive free kitchen incubator space, which means they gain access to a kitchen setting to put their learnings into practice for five months, free of charge. The space is available at Food Business Pathways partners Hot Bread Kitchen, Brooklyn FoodWorks, The Entrepreneur Space, and Bronx CookSpace. Along with access to kitchens and storage at flexible hours, other perks of incubator space include monthly workshops and trainings, market access opportunities, and hands-on support. Individuals are chosen for incubator space based on an application, instructor feedback, class participation, and a business plan. Those who are not selected are still eligible for help in securing an alternate location to get their businesses up and running.
Achieving a Dream
After spotting the Food Business Pathways flyer at the Section 8 office, Davis, who was experienced in vegan catering and street vending, signed up for the program right away. Upon acceptance, she started with the program’s fifth cohort in July 2016.
Under the business moniker Veggie Grub, she has developed a 12-week cooking series that’s all about teaching people to cook vegan food and adopt healthier diets. A recipient of free incubator space, Davis has been operating out of Brooklyn Food Works since March to cook and host cooking classes.
“Even though I knew I was a great cook and knew I was destined to take things to the next level, I really didn’t know what my masterplan was,” Davis says. “The class helped me realize my master plan and let me know I was thinking too small.”
She meets with her students in weekly four-hour sessions at Brooklyn Foodworks, where she teaches them to cook plant-based vegan dishes like ‘down home tofu fried chicken,’ vegan fish tacos, and vegan cheesecake. But her business model isn’t all about teaching recipes—Davis’s students will also compete in a vegan cooking competition modeled after the popular Food Network show Chopped, go on an immersive healthy-food shopping outing, and complete interactive homework assignments like eating raw for a day and mapping out a day in the life of a vegan.
She leaves enrollment open by individual session, or for the entire series, which begins in early April. At this point, there’s really no goal that seems too big for Davis to conquer. She wants to open the first vegan fast-food franchise on the east coast, and to participate on Shark Tank or Restaurant Startup.
“I feel that this is my time to really take my dreams to that level,” Davis says. “And it’s all because of the class.”
A Taste of Success
Davis isn’t the only program graduate who has come into her own with the help of Food Business Pathways. So far, 82 percent of participants have completed the educational component of the program, and 111 have started food businesses.
Luquana McGriff, a 35-year-old mother of two from Red Hook, is a 2016 Food Business Pathways graduate who runs a dessert catering company called A Cake Baked in Brooklyn. She has been baking her whole life, but credits Food Business Pathways with giving her the tools to expand from selling baked goods to family and friends into developing an actual catering business run out of Brooklyn Food Works.
“My business is an LLC now and they also guided me into a commercial kitchen,” McGriff says. “I have insurance and all the things I didn’t know I would need going forward to be a business owner.”
She’s grateful that the program helped guide her through difficult processes, like licensing and inspection. In fact, she says she doesn’t think she could have it all without Food Business Pathways, and still keeps in touch with the program for mentorship and business guidance.
McGriff wants to open a storefront eventually, but for now she works a full-time job with the police department and caters on the side. She was not among the five Food Business Pathway’s graduates from her cohort chosen to receive free incubator space, so she pays for it on her own. When she’s not cooking, McGriff uses the space to meet customers and host food tastings.
So far, five cohorts, or a total of 139 individuals, have completed the program. A sixth cohort began in early April and a seventh will start in August. Food Business Pathways graduates have formed 111 businesses that span catering, wholesale distribution, cooking education, and more. An SBS spokesperson says the program will continue operating through the end of 2017, when it will be assessed for continuation.
Photo credit: New York City Department of Small Business Services