Something is stirring at the Mixing Bowl, the community commercial kitchen at the South Valley Economic Development Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This small food business incubator will celebrate a decade of success in 2015 by asking the New Mexico State legislature for $700,000 to fund development of a dozen other similar kitchens throughout the state.
If funded, the La Cocina Initiative will help a dozen existing rural New Mexico communities build out food entrepreneur programs based on the successful Mixing Bowl model in underutilized commercial kitchens like those in community center, schools, and churches. Tim Nisly, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Community Development Corporation, the agency managing the Mixing Bowl, explains that small communities often don’t have the capacity to support a stand-alone commercial kitchen, but they often have underutilized existing commercial kitchens housed in public spaces. If these kitchens were managed to accommodate local food entrepreneurs during the hours they’re not serving lunch to seniors or school kids, the numbers suggest that funding could spur the creation of 240 new companies and 596 new jobs, as well as $10.97 million in gross business impacts.
Since opening its doors, the Mixing Bowl has helped launch dozens of thriving small businesses, as well as trained food entrepreneurs to not only build sustainable businesses, but also to mentor other aspiring business people. Currently, the kitchen houses 120 businesses in the development phase and 60 active businesses. Over the past six years, another 50 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program and moved into independent kitchens throughout the Albuquerque area.
The Mixing Bowl builds business success through a careful strategy that includes three key ingredients: peer-to-peer mentorship, hands-on business development training, and strategic networking to help entrepreneurs access new markets. This each-one-teach-one approach to training successful food entrepreneurs and the associated, tangible economic development are the inspiration behind the La Cocina Initiative.
Economic development in rural areas often needs to capitalize on resources within the community. The La Cocina Initiative will utilize existing facilities, and the knowledge, drive, and desire of established food entrepreneurs, like farmers and ranchers, to build and revitalize strong and sustainable local economies in rural communities. Having many kitchens like the Mixing Bowl throughout New Mexico means strong local economies, but it also means connections to urban centers, and ultimately a more robust regional food system.
Enter Delicious New Mexico—a sister program to the Mixing Bowl—aimed at growing a food system that supports local businesses first, creates new jobs, and promotes access to healthy food for all. While commercial community kitchens enable entrepreneurs to produce their goods, they still face the challenge of finding appropriate markets. Delicious New Mexico is there to help.
According to Delicious director Celerah Hewes-Rutledge, “There are many wonderful local food businesses in rural areas who are growing to be enjoyed outside of their community and Delicious New Mexico is proud to help these entrepreneurs tell their stories to a larger audience. The La Cocina Initiative will provide more opportunities for this growth and will continue increase both jobs and products in a wide range of areas around the state.”
As a partner in the La Cocina Initiative, Delicious New Mexico provides business-to-business network support to connect future food entrepreneurs from rural community kitchens to urban markets in cities like Albuquerque, Denver, and El Paso, and to regional distributors like Ben E. Keith, La Montanita Co-op, and Whole Foods Markets. These connections mean that rural communities can incentivize entrepreneurs to stay rooted in small places, while still having access to big city markets.
A critical economic development initiative, La Cocina was first proposed three years ago, but needed stronger numbers to demonstrate the feasibility of the Mixing Bowl model and the Delicious New Mexico connections, applied in other community kitchens. Now, the proposal enjoys support from the New Mexico Economic Development Department and many of the state’s elected political leaders. The initiative is gaining momentum as proponents have presented a strong case as to how this public funding can contribute to stronger rural economies.