Incubator kitchen brings hope, opportunity to Grand Rapids food startups

Incubator kitchen brings hope, opportunity to Grand Rapids food startups

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Inside Kzoo Station, a new incubator kitchen launching in Grand Rapids’ Boston Square Business District, Jeanetta Hudnell talks enthusiastically about the business she hopes to build there.

The grandmother, who lives a half-mile from the Southeast Side kitchen, started pickling vegetables during the COVID-19 pandemic and giving them to friends and family to layer on hot dogs, sandwiches and charcuterie boards. After going through an entrepreneurship program hosted by SpringGR, she decided to take her hobby to the next level and launch Papa’s Peppers.

“I get to take my idea and it comes to life,” said Hudnell, who plans to rent space at the incubator kitchen to get Papa’s Peppers up and running.

Papa’s Peppers is one example of the type of businesses Spring GR and community development group Amplify GR are looking to foster at Kzoo Station. The two organizations teamed up to create the kitchen, which is located at 1445 Kalamazoo Ave. SE and was completed in December, with the goal of providing a place for food and catering businesses to launch or expand.

Rental space at the 1,400-square-foot kitchen, which is owned by a limited liability company connected to Rockford Construction, costs $20 an hour.

Inside the building, a former car dealership that sat vacant for years, users have access to a shiny, new kitchen complete with two electric convection ovens, a fryer, a flat top grill, a griddle, a stove-top with 12- burners as well as a freezer and cold storage. Five or six tenants are expected to be using the space by April after obtaining the required licenses.

Jon Ippel, executive director of Amplify GR, a nonprofit working to redevelop several Southeast Side neighborhoods, said the idea for the kitchen was born out of community conversations.

“Food really became one of those things that a lot of neighbors had passion in, had tremendous skill in, and in many cases were operating small businesses out of their kitchen,” he said.

Kzoo Station, which cost about $600,000 to complete, is one of the first project finished by Amplify in the Boston Square Business District.

The nonprofit was created by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and the Cheri DeVos Foundation with the goal of redeveloping the Cottage Grove, Boston Square and Madison Square neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are located within the city’s Third Ward, which is home to a large portion of the city’s Black population and haven’t shared in the same level of investment as other parts of the city.

After renovations were completed in December, Kzoo Station is slowly coming to life.

On Wednesday morning, Debbie Mitchell, the owner of Momma D’s Kitchen, met a Kent County Health Department worker at Kzoo Station to receive a license to begin using the space this week.

“It’s a new facility, which means everything is working properly, and they have programs they’re going to be doing here to help entrepreneurs succeed,” said Mitchell, a Spring GR graduate whose business sells barbecue sauce and barbecue food.

Mitchell, 55, said she’s rented space at other kitchen incubators in the area, including the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids and Prep Space in Wyoming. She decided to come to Kzoo Station after Spring GR reached out and told her about the kitchen.

“I can network better here because it mostly is probably going to be Spring GR grads who are here,” said Mitchell, who operates a mobile food cart and sells her barbecue sauce at Bridge Street Market, Sobie Meats and Fulton Street Farmer’s Market.

Spring GR, a business entrepreneurship created by the DeVos family, will be managing Kzoo Station.

Three program areas are planned for space: Idea Lab, a Kitchen Incubator Program, and Maker Space.

Idea Lab is a free and open workshop, available to anyone, that’s designed to offer guidance for residents who have an idea for a food business.

The Kitchen Incubator Program is a 15-week course designed to give food entrepreneurs the knowledge to launch and grow their business and obtain the required licensing and certification. Ten to 12 people can participate in the program, which is held twice a year.

The final area, Maker Space, is designed for food businesses that are licensed, insured and certified in proper food safety procedures, and want to rent space at the kitchen for $20 an hour. The goal is to have five or six such tenants by April.

“Our mission is to help businesses grow and become profitable so they can develop and do what it is they’re dreaming about,” said Arlene Campbell, director of Spring GR.

Seated at a table inside the kitchen, Hudnell talks about her dream of selling her pickled peppers at restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets and more. One blend she’s excited about is jalapeno peppers and brussels sprouts.

“I know people have never heard of that before, but we’re making it work,” said Hudnell, who’s spent her adult life serving as a mother, caregiver and “professional student.”

“My dad recently passed, and I was a caregiver to him, and I needed to make a change in my life. So this is my time, and this is a great opportunity to take my idea and make it into a business.”

Other entrepreneurs that plan to use the kitchen include Shantal Ferrell, owner of Savor the Flavor, as well as Kayla Munoz, owner of Let’s Taco.

Officials hope Kzoo Station benefits from other developments Amplify has planned for the area.

In partnership with neighbors, Amplify created a plan to redevelop a nine-acre stretch of the Boston Square Business District bordered to the east and west by Fuller and Kalamazoo avenues, and to the north and south by Adams and Ramona streets.

The plan calls for 101 mixed-income apartments, retail space, a community hub with an early childhood education center, a park, greenspace and more. A formal groundbreaking date for the apartments has not been set. However, Amplify has been awarded a low-income housing tax credit for the project, Ippel said.

Once the housing is complete, it will provide a boost for the businesses at Kzoo Station, he said.

“I imagine a day when there’s a hundred new families living across the street and what that’s going to mean to the businesses in terms of having a hundred potential new customers,” he said. “It affords more convenience and opportunities for the families but also drives more business opportunities for the folks who are going to be working at Kzoo Station.”

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