Growing food

The commissary is Rochester's kitchen incubator
Patrick Harney
Laura Fox O'Sullivan

The Commissary 

250 E Main St. 



If you have an interest in the culinary arts, the Commissary will soon offer an outlet to develop your passion.

Scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, the food-based incubator will cater to those with an interest in developing businesses within Rochester’s culinary industry. Headquartered in Sibley Square, the hope is to expand the number of locally owned food businesses downtown, mainly by providing access to affordable commercial kitchen space and food business incubation services.

“The biggest barrier to entry for people looking to start a food business in Monroe County is the fact that shared kitchens are illegal,” says Laura Fox O’Sullivan.

As a result, entrepreneurs who need a commercial kitchen space to work on their products are frozen out, “unless they have venture capital funds,” or access through industry connections.

The Comissary's purpose is to overcome those barriers by providing a space for entrepreneurs to work, according to Fox O’Sullivan, principal for the project and vice president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation.The 6,500-square-foot facility will have industrial-grade kitchen equipment and enough space for rent to accommodate fourteen businesses simultaneously. However, current plans call for only allowing twelve occupants at one time, to avoid overflow.

“You need to have a little bit of flexibility for people who run over or have a last-minute catering opportunity and you want to be able to fit them in,” she says

Current estimates for the number of businesses the Commissary will be able to support begin with more than thirty planned for the first year. The hope will be to continue to scale up until the incubator is supporting more than fifty businesses by the third year, according to Fox O’Sullivan.

“We can be home to so many businesses because someone restocking a packaged food good or baking cakes for weddings won’t need to be in the kitchen as regularly as a caterer or food truck operator,” she says.

Fox O’Sullivan also notes that the Commissary will be open “twenty-four/seven,” to ensure ease-of-access for each entrepreneur.

“They’re not going to be in there necessarily as a full-time job, at least to start. That’s what we’re seeing, is that a lot of people who start food businesses try to do it on the side in addition to whatever they’re doing to have stable income for their families.”

Aside from providing access to a fully outfitted commercial kitchen, the incubator will also offer professional coaching and tutoring from members of Rochester’s culinary community. A staff of three will be available to entrepreneurs, helping them understand which permits or documents are needed in addition to learning how to use the equipment.

“I’m foreseeing them being people that have worked in the food industry before and are excited to kind of play that mentorship role with people starting out in the food business.”

There are also plans to have “food industry consultants” who can work closely with individual start-ups to overcome specific problems, such as issues organizing a catering business or a packaged food company. 

While the project is still in the design phase—with $100,000 of additional funding needed to reach the $2.1 million estimated budget—Fox O’Sullivan says the reaction to the development has largely been positive.

“It’s been pretty cool to see how generous people are willing to be with their time because they’re excited about this project,” she says, adding that they’ve seen “a tremendous amount of demand” for the incubator.

According to Dana Miller, director of business and housing development for the City of Rochester, the Commissary “is a unique solution to a challenge in our community.”

“This will add to the vibrancy and vitality of our Center City and, by providing a very low cost of entry for these business operators, will support more job creation.  This concept has been successfully implemented in places like Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Long Island, New Orleans, and Portland.  As an example, HBK Incubates in Harlem has been in operation since 2008 and has created more than 200 jobs generating $104 million in economic impact in the New York City metro area.  We believe that Rochester is ready to join this growing and exciting movement.”

Ebony Miller-Wesley, director of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, echoes the demand she has seen for a food-based incubator, stating that it could help many entrepreneurs expand.

“It will help our local entrepreneurs that have food businesses that have been operating out of their homes to grow,” she says, adding how it’s been a major issue for many.

“Like, specifically, we had a client that came to us and they do have a health department-approved kitchen. However, the capacity at which they’d be able to operate would be much larger if they had access to the kitchen incubator, because they’d have access to commercial ovens, convection ovens, counter space that would exceed what they have currently. So they’d be able to produce more, which means more sales.”

Another important aspect of the Commissary is its ability to build wealth and develop ideas among a community that may not have access to high-tech opportunities, Fox O’Sullivan says.

“They need some support from us in terms of helping to navigate the permitting process, which can be pretty daunting, if you’ve never done it before. It’s very exciting, and one of the key reasons why  we’ve gotten so much support from the public sector is that we are providing wealth-building and business ownership opportunities for people from all different walks of life.”

For Kwamell Burgess, the Commissary represents a chance to have “my own culinary legacy.”

Having grown up around relatives with an interest in cooking, Burgess, twenty-one, enrolled in the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center’s culinary arts program, where he first heard about the kitchen incubator. Now he has an active interest in gaining more industry experience, and the Commissary looks to fill that need.

“The Commissary is going to help me getting out there,” he says, noting how working in an incubation setting would help him, “build a reputation to sell food in Rochester.”

“I’ll start with that.”

Patrick Harney is a freelance reporter who covers the economy, education and local events in Monroe and Ontario Counties. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickharneyw1.

Categories: Current Issue – Grow, Grow