The Can-Do Kitchen, a food incubator that has helped local entrepreneurs launch new products, from bean dip and Brazilian bread to granola and coffee concentrate, was created because Lucy Dilley was interested in where her own food came from and how it was produced.
Eight years later, her “little spark of an idea” has grown from a Fair Food Matters pilot program operating out of a trailer to a shared commercial kitchen at the People’s Food Co-Op. Soon the Can-Do Kitchen will be its own stand-alone organization and move to a bigger facility that will allow the organization to help more fledgling entrepreneurs, says Dilley.
How did you get where you are today?
As a student in the Environmental Studies program at Western Michigan University, I learned about environmental problems and the bad things people are doing to the environment. I became interested in community gardening and eating healthy, whole foods. I got a job at the People’s Food Co-Op, which made me interested in the kinds of food we could produce here.
That path of wanting to know where my food is coming from and the intersection of food and work inspired me to develop a space where people can create foods that they can sell in their communities. I was not a business major, but I thought, "I am going to start a shared kitchen as a business." I came to realize, however, that there was more of a social mission here. I wanted to make a shared kitchen that was accessible to people who don’t have the opportunity to go out and build their own kitchens. I approached Fair Foods Matters (a local nonprofit that works to improve access to healthy, local food in the Kalamazoo community) and asked if they were interested in taking this on, and they said yes.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I wear a lot of hats. I meet with between two and four new clients a week to help them through the start-up process. I also go out into the community and develop relationships with service providers so that we can add them to the resource guide we give clients. There’s a lot of financial management, including fundraising and grant writing, as well as management of the systems that make the program function, including ensuring our facility is up to code, licensed and clean and our equipment works.
Did you see yourself doing something like this when you were a kid?
No, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian or a psychologist. There is a component of psychology to it (managing the Can-Do Kitchen), though. It's a kind of a rollercoaster mentoring and guiding new clients through their start-up process. It’s emotional, with ups and downs, and we try to be a solid place for clients to come and freak out and be there for them when they need it.
What you do you do when you work with a client?
Clients start by taking a group tour of the kitchen and learn what the program offers. They get an application, which is really a business-planning tool that asks questions about their idea, where they want to go, what they've done and their experience. It gets them thinking about things they haven’t thought about yet.
We don't want them to get into the kitchen and pay a bunch of money and make something they haven’t thought through. We want them to be at a point where it's a potentially viable business idea.
If they become one of our clients, then we become really engaged. We meet weekly to go over a checklist of what they should be working on and help them identify tasks that need to be completed, and we give them resource information for everyone from branding specialists to CPAs (certified public accountants) to insurance agents.
The Can-Do Kitchen seems to be more than just a kitchen.
The kitchen is a crucial part of it, but it’s really small-business development. People will have a recipe that others tell them is really good, and they want to make it into a business. But they find out it’s so much more than just their recipe. They have to learn how to turn that idea into a business.
What accomplishment have you had that stands out?
Our Business Builders scholarship program, which provided scholarship money for entrepreneurs in low-income brackets that didn’t have capital to develop their ideas. The program gave them the chance to try it out. The strongest scholarship recipient out of that program was Maliesha Pullano, of Mamaleelu Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate. She’s got a great product and is really creative.
What keeps you up at night?
The knowledge that I, as one person, can’t level the playing field and make this opportunity available to everybody. We can offer scholarships, but there are a lot of barriers, including racial, economic and language barriers, and they are forces in the society that are beyond our control.
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