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story.lead_photo.caption A food incubator is shown in the Queens borough of New York in this July 2014 file photo. The incubator offers commercial kitchen space to small companies. (Bloomberg News / Ron Antonelli )

Per the ancient adage: First crawl, then walk, then run. If that's all going well enough, take flight.

Angela Gardner, program associate with Share Grounds, the kitchen incubator project from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, said the program is seeking new clients: Budding entrepreneurs looking to take their food-based businesses or ideas to the next level.

"We're looking at people who either have an idea for a food product they want to test, a food product they want to develop into a business or a small home-based food business they want to scale up," Gardner said.

Share Grounds uses kitchen facilities located at three county fairgrounds across Arkansas to help clients develop ideas into feasible business models. Because the kitchens are commercial-grade facilities; inspected and certified by the Arkansas Department of Health; and are unused for all but one or two months out of each year, they are ideally suited to the task of addressing realistic hurdles in food processing and safety.

The Share Grounds kitchens are located at the county fairgrounds in Rison, McCrory and Marshall.

The project began providing introductory workshops in 2019. Even through the pandemic, Share Grounds has been safely helping potential entrepreneurs navigate the ins and outs of business development, food production safety and more. As of this month, Gardner said about half a dozen new businesses have emerged from the project, from candy makers to local produce picklers.

Jelly Madness, a small-scale jelly production company, recently graduated from the Share Grounds Rison location.

Dawn Kelly, who manages the Share Grounds facility in Marshall, said that watching clients develop their ideas and bring products to fruition with the help of the Share Grounds staff was inspiring.

"Speaking as both a Share Grounds kitchen manager and a future manufacturer, the opportunity to have a local shared-use kitchen, giving rural community residents the opportunity to begin small businesses and create local jobs on a small scale is very exciting," Kelly said. "Join us ,and let us help you get your idea off the ground!"

LEAVING THE NEST

"All our kitchens have been open since June," Gardner said. "Since then, we've been working with our first batch of clients. We've provided a mentorship opportunity for them while we waived consultant fees and initial service fees, and now those clients are moving into the realm of commercial production -- they're leaving the nest so to speak."

Because the needs and situations of each client are unique, Share Grounds provides one-on-one consultation, rather than trying to shoehorn groups into a one-size-fits-all classroom setting. Between the three locations, Gardner said Share Grounds currently has the capacity to take on about 10 new clients.

"We're averaging about 15 hours of consulting for each client," she said. "We help people to understand things like health department paperwork and liability insurance as well as understanding your own recipe and whether it's safe and what sort of packaging you might need to ensure its safety.

"Finally, we work to help clients navigate the process of getting a health department permit," she said.

The Share Grounds concept is modeled after the Arkansas Food Innovation Center, which is part of the food science department within the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

To learn more about taking advantage of what Share Grounds has to offer, contact Gardner at (501) 671-2180, at agardner@uaex.edu or visit www.uaex.edu/sharegrounds.

To learn more about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.

Ryan McGeeney is with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

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