Kalamazoo’s Can-Do Kitchen to split from parent organization, fine-tune its mission

MiBiz, Jayson Bussa, October 2015

KALAMAZOO — After seven years operating as one of the marquee programs for a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit organization, the Can-Do Kitchen is poised to establish itself as its own 501(c)(3).

Since opening its doors in 2008, Can-Do Kitchen has been providing commercial kitchen space, food business incubation and workshops for budding entrepreneurs in the local food industry. Until now, the Can-Do Kitchen functioned as a program under Fair Food Matters, which was established in 2001 to educate the community about food issues.

Can-Do Program Director Lucy Dilley will move into an executive director role when the group breaks off into its own organization, affording Can-Do the opportunity to hone in solely on furthering its own mission.

Fair Food Matters, on the other hand, will zero in on its other most popular program, Growing Matters Garden, which offers hands-on, garden-based learning experiences for students at Woodward Elementary School. Heather Crull is manager of that program.

Dilley said she is targeting January 2016 for the transition to be completed, but people may notice changes to the program’s identity as soon as the next couple of months.

“With [Can-Do and the Growing Matters Garden] being the two longest running and strongest programs of Fair Food Matters, it was obvious to us that the programs were meeting a need in the community, but the missions were pretty different,” Dilley said. “We learned over the years working under Fair Food Matters that the Can-Do Kitchen can be a separate organization, and we can poise ourselves to be more effective and focus on the mission.”

The mission for Can-Do Kitchen continues to evolve.

According to Dilley, the primary goal for Can-Do Kitchen is to make more local food products available to the community, but the group also has focused on removing barriers to food business ownership.

Dilley spoke about the economic, racial, gender and language barriers that might be enough to stymie would-be food industry entrepreneurs.

“All these are huge barriers,” Dilley said. “I feel like our role is to overcome these barriers.”

As a program of Fair Food Matters, Can-Do Kitchen was the beneficiary of only a portion of the organization’s money and resources, essentially limiting its potential. Dilley said that the pitch for donation dollars was a little trickier, too, simply because they were selling two very different programs under one banner.

“I would say that it was challenging to appeal to funders that wanted to fund both,” Dilley said, referring to Can-Do Kitchen and Growing Matters Garden.

For now, Fair Food Matters and the Can-Do Kitchen organizations will share office space at the Can-Do headquarters located at 511 Harrison St. in Kalamazoo.

AN EAR TO CLIENTS

Currently, the Can-Do Kitchen is working with 18 food businesses that find themselves in a variety of phases within their business process. Dilley said that the kitchen isn’t booked to capacity, but the numbers are still strong.

Local food providers including Mike’s Famous Michigan Bean Dip, Fizzy Bread and Dips and the Kalamazoo Pickle Company operate out of the Can-Do Kitchen.

“We don’t anticipate our business clients experiencing much of a change as we transition,” Dilley said. “We’re starting new and there is a lot of opportunity for more intentional communication on what sort of organization we want to be and asking our clients to be there with us.

“Our clients have a voice in how the organization goes and telling us what they need from us. It’s a lot of give and take.”

Kzoo Brain Food, which produces an all-organic, walnut-based snack, is one of those clients. Founder and owner Jessie Forbes, who has certifications in both nutrition and fitness, spoke highly of not just the availability of commercial kitchen space and business incubation support, but also of Can-Do’s model for helping bring her product to market.

Forbes has capitalized on both the material resources and the educational component.

“The world needs more commercial kitchens that operate the way the Can-Do Kitchen does,” said Forbes, whose product is billed as nutrient-packed brain fuel that includes coconut oil, cacao powder, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg and cloves.

“There’s never a point where I can’t find out what the next step is as far as the many roles of a food business owner and operator,” Forbes said. “Mostly what I think I’ve learned at the Can-Do Kitchen is that entrepreneurism isn’t a job — it’s a lifestyle.”

When asked to describe the main hurdles the fledgling organization will face, Dilley said it’s too soon to say.

“Ask me again in a year — I probably will never say fundraising is easy,” Dilley said. “I think what we’re doing is certainly something people are interested in and the more we can tell the story of our clients that we work with, the more excited donors can get.

“We need to continue to tell the story that we’re trying to be accessible to everyone in our community, not just those that already have access to resources (to make a food business). In that sense, we might be a little different than traditional incubation programs. That will be appealing to donors as we keep telling the stories and they see our clients’ products in the stores. That’s huge.”

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