Inside The Hatchery: Chicago’s food incubator is laying a foundation for industry growth

Food Dive | Megan Poinski | April 17, 2019

The new 67,000-square-foot facility is open for business with ingenuity from entrepreneurs and several partnerships with big food companies including PepsiCo, Conagra Brands and Kellogg.

CHICAGO — From outside of Chicago, it feels like The Hatchery is a long-established institution.

Since it was started as part of local incubator Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago in 2015, The Hatchery has been collecting high-profile partnerships from companies including Kellogg, Conagra, PepsiCo, Ingredion and most recently Mondelez. For years, the incubator has been working with companies, facilitating networking and helping connect entrepreneurs to people and resources they need.

But traveling to the food incubator’s home in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, it feels brand new — and bursting with possibilities. The 67,000-square-foot building went up so recently, Google Maps still shows a photo of a construction site at the address.

In mid-April, construction vehicles and maintenance workers tended to the front courtyard where a neighborhood food market will soon be set up. The inside of the building smelled like fresh paint. The shared kitchen spaces were mainly empty, and the Rick Bayless restaurant kitchen lab still lacked equipment. Chairs and tables for a shared office space were jumbled together, ready to be organized.

CEO Natalie Shmulik said The Hatchery’s building just opened in January, and it’s only been producing food since February. And while there was a ribbon cutting at the facility four months ago, its grand opening celebration is actually scheduled for this week.

At The Hatchery’s new facility, Shmulik told Food Dive that the incubator operated virtually for its first years, with offices in ICNC’s massive complex. However, the need for the new $30 million building — designed specifically for food businesses and their needs — was quickly apparent.

“Initially, the intention was: we’ll build this facility, we open the facility and then we launch. But that would have been a big mistake,” Shmulik​ said. “Just like the advice we give to our entrepreneurs, it would have been a big disservice for us and for the companies we work with if we hadn’t tested the concept before officially launching.”

This helped shape The Hatchery as an institution and as a facility. While entrepreneurs clearly needed food-grade kitchen space, Shmulik found they also needed space for storage, as well as space to do administrative work. Many startups, she said, would rent out additional space in co-working office facilities for the administrative part of their businesses. And, of course, entrepreneurs working with an incubator program benefit from space to learn from peers in the business and through networking.

The Hatchery’s facility has 55 food-grade private production spaces and a large shared kitchen. There is a large warehouse in the back, which has cold storage, dry storage, loading docks and places to load up food trucks. There are several meeting rooms of various sizes, easily booked for meetings with funders or for team discussions.

There is a large area for lectures and classes, with a display kitchen on one side — eventually which may be used for pop-up lunches by catering companies working in The Hatchery, as well as professional food photography. One large kitchen area will be a classroom for chef Rick Bayless’s restaurant training center, which will educate underserved youth in culinary skills so they can work in restaurants — supporting both the community as well as Chicago’s thriving restaurant scene.

The Hatchery also shares office space with Accion, a nonprofit microlender that provides small business loans of up to $100,000. Shmulk said they have focused on minority and women-owned businesses, and have done a lot of work with food companies working with ICNC’s incubator program. She said it’s a natural partnership to have the financer right on site.

Shmulk said more than four years were spent just planning The Hatchery’s building. The construction is modular so it can easily change and adapt to future needs.

“We’re always still learning, but we really had to engage a lot of industry experts and learn from others to try to make sure that we outfit everything the right way, and there will still likely be changes as the industry changes,” she said.

 

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