ITHACA, N.Y.—One of those factoids that the local Visitors Bureau likes to share is that Ithaca has more restaurants per capita than New York City. Undoubtedly, there is a strong “foodie” culture in and around the city of gorges.

This week, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Economic Development Committee is considering funding a study to see if a shared commercial kitchen would give the local food processing and service industry a healthy boost.

The IURA, which handles economic development funding requests, will consider at its Tuesday meeting a $5,000 grant to complement $16,000 in pro-bono consulting to conduct a feasibility study for a commercial food kitchen that, if viable, would be outfitted in an existing building in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood.

The proposal and its backers, city Deputy Director Economic Development Tom Knipe, Chuck Schwerin of Ithaca Area Economic Development and food entrepreneur and consultant Roger Rotondi, consider it a complementary project to the city and county’s efforts to expand small-scale manufacturing and production, the “artisanal/maker space” approach that has gained popularity in recent years. An action plan to move that initiative forward is to be unveiled to the public in the coming weeks.

According to a memo from Knipe, a number of food-products businesses and regional business groups have expressed the need for a small-scale shared commercial kitchen in the Ithaca-area, the type of place they could rent by the hour to prepare their foodstuffs. Think of it as a step above making everything in their home kitchen, but not quite yet at the production scale where a budding food entrepreneur can cover the costs and logistics of operating and managing their own commercial prep kitchen full-time.

However, such a project comes with its own share of cost and logistical concerns—in particular, where it would be located and who would manage the kitchen’s operation.

“This winter, potential answers to those two key questions emerged, and we started to give the idea of developing a large shared commercial kitchen serious thought. There appears to be a moment of opportunity where there is an alignment of available space and local interest and capacity. The attached narrative further describes this confluence of circumstances. This project holds potential to transform the food product sector in Ithaca and to become a meaningful economic development project with lasting value,” said Knipe.

“A feasibility study is the needed next step. I believe that with (the IURA’s) support for this study, we can further clarify the market, test assumptions, refine financial projections and put together a conservative budget and operations and management plans that will be necessary to secure major funding from other partners for implementation.”

Digging into the proposal a little further, the available space that Knipe is referring to is GreenStar’s former prep kitchen. When they moved into their new flagship store, they left the 3,000 square-foot space vacant. While no longer in use, the space is still outfitted with most of its food production equipment.

As for the local interest, the individual is left anonymous at this stage in the proposal, but their background is given in detail.

“In March of 2020 a former Program Management Officer from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) specializing in private sector development moved to Ithaca. Following his career with the UNDP, he had spent many years in the food manufacturing industry in California, managing commercial kitchens including shared kitchens, creating multiple brands, a host of products and supplying packaged foods to Whole Foods Markets and other natural food retailers across the country,” states the written proposal.

“In July of 2021 he started looking for a commercial kitchen to relaunch his food businesses here in Ithaca, and identified an excellent location, already outfitted
with the majority of necessary equipment. He advised the real estate agent that this space would be a perfect candidate to be a shared commercial kitchen to promote and foster the development of the food industry in and around Ithaca.” The real estate agent approached IAED’s Schwerin and the ball started rolling from there. The landlord of GreenStar’s vacated property is willing to keep it off-market while the study is undertaken, and Board Members of the Ithaca Farmers Market, which provides some production space for vendors, have been engaged in the process.

The Ithaca Food Business Incubator (IFBI), as the proposal is titled, would have cooking stations, separate prep stations, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, dry storage, and a flexible electronic/online booking system. In addition, IFBI would offer members support specific to the needs of the food industry including business consulting, networking, workshops, mentoring and connections to other community-based support services such as a revolving loan program. Ultimately, the goal is to help these small food enterprises sustain themselves and potentially grow and broaden the local economy.

However, the study, if funded, needs to show whether the incubator to be financially viable and able to support itself in the long-term. There is still some amount of fitting out that would need to happen to accommodate multiple small food-production businesses, determination of the amount of money needed to get it off the drawing board and into operation, and if the demand would be strong enough to keep its occupied and financially solvent.

The IURA will weigh the pros and cons of a study, and if that happens, down the line they may have to consider seed money to help the IFBI move from idea to operation. There’s a lot of what-ifs, but given the city and county’s food culture, it may be an economic dish they’re willing to try with the right ingredients.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.