Two and a half years ago, it looked like food incubators—shared commercial kitchen spaces where entrepreneurs can launch, say, a cookie company on a budget—were the future of food entrepreneurship. Chobani launched one. Pepsi launched one. New York City gave a Brooklyn incubator $1.3 million in start-up capital to provide 100 small businesses with 24/7 turnkey access.
That Brooklyn incubator—formerly Brooklyn FoodWorks, later renamed Pilotworks—drew a lot of fawning press. The New Food Economy jumped on that bandwagon, publishing a story as part of our “Incubator Week” series, titled “Can a new incubator democratize ‘Made in Brooklyn’?”
Betteridge’s law of headlines says that any headline ending with a question mark can be answered with the word “no.” On Monday, Pilotworks proved the maxim true of our headline. Without warning, it closed up shop, sending its 175 member-companies an email just hours before the doors closed. Eater reported that businesses were left without access to kitchen space just ahead of the prime-for-food-companies holiday season.
Pilotworks didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time, so no one knows exactly what went wrong. But the company had shown some signs of trouble in recent months. It shut down its operations in Providence and Portland, Maine in September, and locations in Newark, Chicago, and Dallas were also closed as a result of Saturday’s announcement. Brooklyn Foodworks’ former parent company, Dinner Lab, shuttered in 2016.
Less than a year ago, Pilotworks raised an additional $13 million in investments. Yet in the email it sent to vendors announcing its closure, the company wrote that it failed to raise the necessary capital to continue operations.
Pilotworks offered a remarkably low barrier to entry for would-be food entrepreneurs in New York City. When we reported on its launch in 2016, cooks could rent kitchen space for as little as $300 a month, and membership included 24/7 kitchen access and mentorship opportunities.
In a city where restaurant operating costs are notoriously high, the incubator gave emerging chefs a relatively accessible foot in the door. Many sold their products at places like Smorgasburg, an open-air Brooklyn food market that draws heavy foot traffic and can help makers generate buzz around their offerings. (In New York—and in much of the country—it’s virtually impossible to obtain the permits necessary to sell home-cooked food at restaurants and farmers’ markets. California just passed a law that lifts some of those restrictions.)
At their best, incubators provide an on-ramp for new businesses to break into an otherwise unforgiving landscape. That’s why New York City invested so heavily in Brooklyn Foodworks and provided scholarships for low-income members.
But in order for an incubator provide a sustainable platform for fledgling entrepreneurs, it has to function as a reliable piece of infrastructure. Pilotworks was a for-profit entity acting more like an expansion-hungry tech startup than a stable community kitchen (which is, admittedly, much less sexy).
According to David Roa, a CBD-focused Pilotworks member who spoke to Grubstreet, the company used its new $13-million investment to open additional locations rather than support its ongoing projects. And when that failed, it threatened to bring down its nearly 200 members with it.
So, can a new incubator democratize “Made in Brooklyn”? Maybe, but not this one.