Start-up food businesses face many challenges, not least of which are the huge start-up costs associated with kitchen equipment, food-grade storage spaces, and retail storefronts. Shared kitchens are increasingly popular solutions for entrepreneurs who want to start small – but what happens when you start to experience some success and need to scale up?
Between shared space and retail space, there is a new stepping stone offered by The Hatchery, a massive new food business incubator on Chicago’s West Side. The facility – which IFF played a lead role in developing, financing, and managing construction – provides private kitchens, shared kitchens, dedicated cold-dry storage spaces, and a collaborative learning environment for emerging entrepreneurs. It is owned by Accion Serving Illinois & Indiana and the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, and operated by nonprofit The Hatchery Chicago.
One of the facility’s first tenants is Maya Camille-Broussard – the creator, owner, and chef at Justice of the Pies, a Chicago-based bakery with a mission. Beyond butter and blueberries, Pies is committed to positively impacting people’s lives – specifically, children experiencing food insecurities and people who have been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. The mission behind the business was inspired by Maya’s late father, Stephen Broussard, who was a criminal defense attorney with a passion for baking.
Maya started out at a shared kitchen in 2014. During her first year in business, she brought her Pies to various farmers markets and art fairs throughout Chicago. Later, she expanded to pop-ups in other cities and got her products into Whole Foods. Now she’s ready to grow again…but not too fast. IFF recently sat down with Maya to talk about her decision to move into The Hatchery, which is giving her a chance to “level up.”
IFF: You’ve been called a ‘start-up’ and a ‘pop-up’ and a ‘food entrepreneur.’ But you’ve purposefully shied away from having a retail space. Why is that?
Maya: I think most businesses tend to falter because expenses are too high. Being a food entrepreneur, the margins are even slimmer than other industries. I knew I wanted to start this business with the minimal amount of overhead so I could maximize my resources in order to set myself up for success.
Also, because my business has a social mission, I have to decide: How is Justice of the Pies more than just pies? How can my business be impactful? I think that requires me to work outside of a physical location. That may require travel and pop-ups. That may require taking on projects in other cities, or across Chicagoland in various neighborhoods. There’s a certain flexibility that I need, not just with how I sell my pies, but with how I’m able to use Justice of the Pies to positively impact the lives of others.
IFF: Why does your business need a mission?
Maya: There is a book and TED Talk by Simon Sinek that talks about “starting with why” – as in, why are you in business and why will people support your business? The basic theory says the reason why many businesses fail is because their ‘why’ is unclear. My ‘why’ is very clear: I want to positively impact the lives of others through my work; I just also happen to sell pies.
I love that my customers love my pies, but I know that the reason why many of my customers support me is beyond the pies. A lot of them don’t even live in Chicago and may not have even tasted my food before they purchase it. So it’s beyond the product; it’s more about the ethos.
IFF: So, without a retail storefront, where do you bake your pies?
Maya: When I started the business in 2014, I researched different shared kitchens in Chicago, and the one I liked the most was Kitchen Chicago. It was perfect at the time because I knew I wanted to start small, and I needed a place where I could rent hourly. That space has allowed me to take a grassroots approach to this business and build its loyal base of followers and customers.
Now that I’ve done that, I’m ready to expand … but I’m not quite ready for a full-fledged retail space. I don’t want to make a huge leap; I just want to hop over a little puddle. That’s what The Hatchery is for me – it’s hopping to the next level. There, I have my own small private kitchen, which is kind of a step in-between a shared kitchen and a retail storefront – and that’s a pretty rare find.
IFF: What’s so unique about The Hatchery?
Maya: You rarely see a space that has a multitude of private kitchen spaces. It’s usually just a shared kitchen. But in a shared kitchen, I’m at the behest of the schedule and have to compete with other chefs for time. In my own private kitchen, I can come and go as I please – which is very important to me as I travel to different pop-ups, fairs, and markets. It also means I can take a huge last-minute catering order, without having to worry about whether the kitchen is available. And I still don’t have the immense amount of overhead that comes with having a full-fledged storefront retail space.
If you’re playing a video game, The Hatchery is like Level 2. And like any astute business person, I have to be very judicious about how I level-up in the business – especially since I’m dealing with a business where the profit margins can be slim. My private kitchen gives me the same kind of independence as a retail space, but without the crazy overhead that forces a lot of businesses to go out of business.
It’s also important to find a space that’s very supportive in terms of helping a food business grow and succeed. The Hatchery’s main focus is not to profit from their tenants, but to create a hub of successful food businesses. Their various workshops and resources help those businesses level up.