10 steps to save time (and money) in an incubator kitchen

Just in time for the busy holiday production season, these 10 steps will help save time and money.

Chef Ryan Bolhuis
Chef Ryan Bolhuis.

Incubator kitchens are popular places to launch a food business in Michigan. Entrepreneurs are able to rent these commercial kitchen spaces at an hourly rate, which is far less expensive than having to purchase equipment and sign a lease. However, even with the low financial risk, many entrepreneurs may not be getting the full benefit of working from an incubator kitchen if they aren’t operating at maximum efficiency. 

The Michigan State University (MSU) Extension Product Center and the Grand Rapids Downtown Market Incubator Kitchen work collaboratively to support new food entrepreneurs working in this space. This support includes making sure that food business owners are pricing products to earn a profit and cover the full cost of production, distribution and sales. This can be challenging, especially when people are making products by hand in small batches. 

Ryan Bolhuis, Culinary Operations Manager for the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, observes all kinds of food entrepreneurs that operate out of their incubator kitchen on a daily basis. 

“It’s great to see how many food entrepreneurs are actually new to the professional and/or commercial food industry. This just shows that entry into the industry is moving in the right direction. You aren’t necessarily required to have years and years of restaurant experience to own a food business anymore,” said Bolhuis.

However, Bolhuis believes that there is a key element that is often overlooked by “new to the industry” entrepreneurs.

Bolhuis continues, “Being as efficient as possible during production and packaging is critical to the bottom line of a new food business. Often, this may be the only area where costs can be lowered. We see so many entrepreneurs that have an amazing passion for food, but aren’t familiar with the hyper efficient processes that accompany many professional kitchens and brigades.”

Here are 10 helpful tips for new food entrepreneurs to become more efficient in a commercial kitchen to lower costs.

  1. Do each step only once. For example, if you are making dough and filling piping bags, make all the dough you need at one time and fill all the piping bags at one time. Don’t go back and make more dough or re-do steps multiple times. Create batch sizes that fit the largest size of mixers/equipment available.
  2. Clean as you go in order to maximize space. Anyone with formal training will tell you that the four words you hear the most early on in your career are “Clean as you go!” If you need to take a few minutes to set items aside and clean to make room on countertops, do so. You don’t need to thoroughly clean while you are cooking unless you have downtime such as items cooking in the oven and nothing to prep. 
  3. Stay off your phone! Bolhuis has observed so many entrepreneurs using their downtime on their phone rather than cleaning. In an incubator kitchen, you pay to rent kitchen time. If you’re talking on the phone, even business related calls, you’re spending money to talk on the phone. Plan ahead! Schedule business meetings and phone calls outside of kitchen time. Schedule product ordering times. When you pay to rent an incubator kitchen, that time should be fully devoted to production.
  4. Use the right equipment. Home cooking equipment is for home kitchen use. When you step into the commercial world, you’ll find out quickly that home cooking equipment is a completely different quality. Size of the equipment, even on a base level, can make a large difference as well. For example, if you’re a home baker, the size difference between a home baking sheet (19” x 12”) and a full size commercial sheet pan (26” x 18”)  are essential for maximizing production in a commercial scale convection oven. It’s worthwhile spending some of your budget on higher quality commercial equipment. 
  5. Make the most of your equipment. For example, fill all ovens each time you bake. If ovens can hold 7 sheet pans, fill 7 trays and bake them at one time. If you are concerned they won’t bake properly, plan to move pans from top to bottom half way through cooking time. In the packaged food industry, especially, it’s all about increasing the amount of product you can make in the same (or lesser) amount of time. If you’re not utilizing the equipment to its fullest potential, then you’re not being the most efficient you can be. 
  6. Plan ahead. Create shopping/ordering lists. Set specific days to complete certain tasks. Plan out your prep, production and packaging strategy. Write out all of your procedures and production physical set-up to look for areas that can be done faster. 
  7. Don’t forget about precision. There’s a reason why chefs are borderline obsessive about each dice being identical in size and shape or why every recipe written for a product needs to be followed to the gram: efficiency. If a carrot is diced into all different sizes, they cook differently, taste differently, and are not aesthetically pleasing. Precision guarantees efficiency which helps maintain product consistency.
  8. Utilize scrap products. It’s a simple rule. If it goes in the trash, you’re throwing away money. If you are a caterer, utilize veg and fruit scraps in sauces and stocks by pureeing or juicing them. Clarify sauces and soups using egg shells wrapped in cheesecloth. 
  9. Take advantage of bulk scheduling. Many incubator kitchens are first come, first served style facilities. This means that you have to reserve/schedule usage time in advance. As you move forward, take good notes as your routine develops. Schedule as far in advance as you can. Just be mindful of cancellation policies.
  10. Ask for help. Ask a food industry veteran to observe you in the kitchen and see if they can find areas where you can reduce steps or time. Ask for help if needed to learn how to use larger equipment and scale up your recipe into larger, time saving batches. Use your MSU Product Center counselor as a resource. 

The holiday season is approaching. Food items are in high demand as gifts and for family and friend gatherings. Food entrepreneurs will need to be as efficient as possible to earn a profit. Reach out to MSU Extension and your MSU Product Center counselor today for more information on how you can save money and price your products efficiently. 

Ryan Bolhuis is an award-winning chef with more than 15 years of food industry experience creating sustainable and profitable food systems. Ryan has worked on multiple Michelin award winning teams and for some of the largest names in the food industry from NYC to Paris.

As a native of Hudsonville, MI, his goal has always been to highlight the food industry and farming communities of Michigan. Ryan now works as the Culinary Operations Manager for the Downtown Market Grand Rapids. There, he utilizes his culinary experience and food knowledge to mentor food entrepreneurs throughout all aspects of their business journey. 

The Incubator Kitchen Grand Rapids is a 5,000 sq ft, 24/7/365, shared commercial kitchen. With usage rates ranging from $10-$22/hr and storage rates ranging from $16-$30/month, this offers food entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch a food business at a very low capital cost, low continuing overhead and low financial risk. The Incubator Kitchen also offers free consultations and guidance throughout your entire business journey. To schedule a free Incubator Kitchen Consultation and Tour, please contact Ryan Bolhuis at incubator@downtownmarketgr.com or visit http://downtownmarketgr.com/incubator-kitchen to learn more.

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