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Richmond Hatches a Plan to Nurture Local Food

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RADIO IQ
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The world’s leading maker of cigarettes was once headquartered in Richmond.  It employed thousands of people and occupied acres of real estate.  Today, many tobacco jobs are gone and warehouses sit empty, but at an industrial park once owned by Phillip Morris, something new and exciting is underway.

36-year-old Austin Green started working in restaurants when he was 15.  His family owned a business, and he knew how hard it was to start something new.

“There’s a lot of overhead expense involved," he explains.  " Having your own operation in your own kitchen, the utilities, upkeep, trash, Internet, the equipment -- it really adds up.”

So when he met a couple of guys in Richmond who were looking for business opportunities, he made the pitch for a food incubator – a place where people launching edible enterprises could get a start and grow.  They installed state-of-the-art industrial kitchens where bakers and makers of all things delicious could – for a small monthly fee – work in this professional space around others who are building food businesses.

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Cassandra Wheeler and her sister Joybell make 600 sweet potato pies a week in the Hatch kitchen.

“It’s kind of like a gym membership," he says.  "Members can come and go as they please.  This facility is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.” 

Cassandra Wheeler and her sister Joybell signed on to produce  600 sweet potato pies a week. 

“We’ve always cooked for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and we just decided to turn it into a business," she says, adding that their product is now sold at local Food Lion grocery stores.     

Michelle’s firm, Soucasa, produces frozen burritos and bowls delivered to customers’ homes and offices.  She likes the convenience and camaraderie of working with other foodies.

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Soucasa prepares frozen burritos and bowls, then delivers them to customers in Charlottesville and Richmond. 

"There’s lot of freezer space," she says.  "They have a lot of large pieces of equipment that you might not find in other locations. There are a lot of ovens, and you see a lot of really good projects coming out of here.  It’s kind of like coming to work at a giant potluck every day.”

In another building, founder Austin Green watches chef Kyle Morse and his crew prepare meat.

“This is a USDA inspected meat processing facility, so these guys are actually making sausage, and they’re smoking it over here.," he says. "It’s also kind of a first for the region in terms of small and mid-sized businesses having access to this stuff – to be able to do this.”

Morse came here from New York.

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A start-up called The Mayor makes sausage from pork raised at small regional farms where founder Kyle Morse (center) says the pigs are treated well, and the environmental impact is minimal.

“I spent ten years in New York City working for Michelin Star celebrity chefs," he recalls.  "The last place I was with April Boomfield, and that’s where I really honed my sausage craft.”

But when he decided to launch his own business, called The Mayor, Morse felt Virginia was a better bet.  Here he found small farms raising pigs under humane conditions.

“The quality is unmatched, and the impact it has on the environment is a hell of a lot less.”   

In Richmond, he found the facilities and made the connections he needed to go national. 

Green and his partners called their business Hatch.

“When you’re discussing a project and you say, ‘Food Incubator Commissary Kitchen,’ that’s kind of a mouthful, so we said we really need a quick snappy thing while we’re talking about it.”

In addition to work and office space, Hatch provides packaging and logistics for getting products to market and advice as needed.

“We offer everything from baking tips to investment advice to how to balance your check book," Green explains. "There’s a lot of things you need to know to start a business and be successful at it.”

There’s also a café called Fat Kids’ Sandwiches, offering large, gourmet meals on bread and a food truck corral where owners can park and plug-in.

So far, more than 60 businesses have hatched at Hatch, creating about 200 jobs, and this fall the enterprise will offer more employment as it opens Richmond’s first food hall – a place where chefs can try out new creations or move toward opening restaurants without the immense investment required for brick and mortar.  

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.