Food Hub in San Francisco Looking for Funds to Make Project a Reality

Food incubators, food hubs, and food halls are all interesting concepts that have become extremely popular around North America over the past decade.  Many of these culinary and food concepts have become successful from both a business and economic perspective.  However many struggle financially, even before they can get off the ground.  It is easy to open a proven concept such as a Subway… but a food hub that focuses on empowering women and minorities through micro-restaurants, that is a much trickier financial perspective.

The planned “La Cocina Municipal Market” in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco has been anticipated since early 2017.  It would be run by the nonprofit La Cocina, which does some really interesting stuff in the Bay Area

The mission of La Cocina is to cultivate low income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities. We focus primarily on women from communities of color and immigrant communities. Our vision is that entrepreneurs gain financial security by doing what they love to do, creating an innovative, vibrant and inclusive economic landscape.

La Cocina Municipal Market is to occupy a 7,500 square foot space in an old post office building that has been sitting vacant.  Permanent long term plans for the site include a mixed-use building containing retail at-grade with affordable and social housing above.  Due to the extensive process of raising funds for the development, demolition of the post office building is still 5 to 8 years away.  Enter La Cocina, which has planned the Municipal Market as a temporary use until demolition.  The Market would be a place for local women to launch micro restaurants and other food-related businesses, building upon the great work that the non profit has already completed for the community from a culinary incubation perspective.

La Cocina

The Market was expected to begin construction in early summer, with renovations to the post office building completed before the end of 2018.  The project has now hit a road block due to unexpected rising costs.  Originally, the Market construction had a budget of $2 million.  $1 million was provided by a local family who were previous owners of the land.  La Cocina matched this amount, for a total of $2 million in funding.

Unexpected costs have now plagued the project, with construction costs rising to nearly $4 million.  The additional $2 million will have to come from a mix of city-provided funds, and philanthropic donations.  Cost overruns are typical in re-purposed buildings, especially when transitioning to a highly specific use.  The concept of the Municipal Market is an exciting endevour that would empower local women and provide a culinary anchor to the Tenderloin District; however the financial implications that La Cocina are facing demonstrate the difficulties of adapting a building within a limited budget.  It also begs the question of whether the $4 million would be better used on a more permanent location, since the post office site will ultimately be redeveloped within the next decade.  It would be a shame to invest a large amount of money into a building that has a limited shelf-life.  Creating community spaces is so important, especially in ethnically diverse areas such as the Tenderloin, but removing them once they have become entrenched in a neighborhood is difficult.

There has been discussions among city officials and community groups on how to raise the additional funds required to move the project ahead.

To learn more about La Cocina, their incubated culinary businesses, or to donate to the cause, follow the link.



Restaurant Clustering

I have been consulting for a major real estate project in Calgary over the past five months, which has led me to tracking the culinary scene in the city.  There have been some great restaurants that have emerged in downtown Calgary over the past few years, whether it has been on pedestrian friendly 8th Avenue, or towards the more eclectic and gentrifying neighbourhoods along 4th St and 17th Avenue.

I have discussed restaurant clustering in the past.  The idea that once several trendy and up-and-coming restaurants establish themselves in a neighbourhood, other “like-minded” restaurants are drawn in to create a clustering effect or critical mass.  This then forms a destination for local residents who have the choice of a variety of options.

The Calgary Sun ran an interesting article earlier this month on food clusters, mapping out certain types of food (and drink) in various areas of the city, from Japanese and Vietnamese, to Beer, and even a “Chicken Corridor”.

It makes for a interesting exercise that many cities could conduct, to better understand where their food & beverage offerings are, their types, and whether there is any type of clustering occurring.  Of course, established ethnic enclaves in various cities will naturally create a clustering effect, however more modern clustering is still able to occur, with a strong example in Vancouver’s aptly named  “Brewery Creek”.

Check out the Calgary Sun article here.


The Whitewashing of Detroit’s Culinary Scene

CityLab had an interesting article today regarding Detroit’s culinary scene.  The article uses a different viewpoint, one that looks at gentrification and race.

In today’s Downtown Detroit, the majority of new restaurant ownership—along with the bulk of prestigious staff positions at these establishments—is overwhelmingly white. So is their patronage. With a few important and notable exceptions, Downtown Detroit’s contemporary culinary scene, as celebrated by popular media coverage, investment capital, and growing industry recognition, is almost exclusively white-faced in a breathtakingly black city—and adjacent to other similarly white-faced commercial and residential concerns. This inequality is the final destination for most urban revival schemes, a sad union of capitalism and structural racism that’s hard to untangle.

CityLab Article Link

Shipping Containers being utilized for urban eatery at SteelCraft

Developments built out of shipping containers have been fairly popular over the past decade.  With a glut of shipping containers in certain countries due to global trade (it is not cost effective to ship empty containers back to their point of origin), there have been inventive ways to re-purpose shipping containers.  They are easy to move, stack, and retrofit due to their simple rectangular box nature.  Boxpark in London, England is one of the most well known shipping container developments, establishing itself as the first modern “shipping container retail mall”.

Today, more and more innovative uses are being created out of shipping containers.  One of the newest entries-to-market is SteelCraft, an outdoor food hall in Long Beach, California that opened in February.  SteelCraft may not be a new concept if you perceive it simply as a food hall, but the developers really focused on making it a social community hub for the surrounding Bixby Knolls neighborhood on the north side of Long Beach.  From the SteelCraft website:

Born of a desire to see people come together over food and drinks, SteelCraft unites local eateries with a communal dining space in Long Beach. Whether you come for the food, the drinks, or the people, there’s a place for you at the SteelCraft table.


SteelCraft central courtyard – Image credited to SteelCraftLB

SteelCraft has been built to connect seamlessly with the surrounding community, which has experienced gentrification as many young families have moved into the neighborhood.  The community has not historically had a central meeting place that could be used to socialize (such as a town square), something the developers have looked to capitalize on.  The development has been constructed from 10, forty-foot shipping containers, which totals approximately 3,200 square feet of space (based off of a standard 40×8 container).  The cost of constructing the urban eatery out of shipping containers was much more affordable than a typical bricks-and-mortar development, especially since a foundation and roof is not required.  Communal tables are integrated in a central courtyard where various events occur on a weekly basis.  Past events have included live music, pop-up retail shops, and soccer viewing parties.

I have been to Long Beach several times, and I believe that crafting a food hall out of re-purposed shipping containers is a great homage to the Port of Long Beach, which has been a major employer to the city over the past 100+ years.  I also think that outdoor food halls are going to become more popular, especially in regional areas of the Southern United States where weather is favorable year-round.  There are more opportunities for expansion, holding events, and reconfiguration of layout with an outdoor food hall, something that reflects the history of food clusters in South Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Taiwan.

SteelCraft is also a great example of a suburban food hall.  Last September I profiled four different types of food halls, and SteelCraft fits well within the suburban food hall definition, especially focusing on local vendors and marketing to local residents.  The surrounding area is primarily single family residential with low-rise multi-family residential and low-rise office buildings nearby.


SteelCraft vendor – Image credited to LA Times


Belcampo takes on Farm-to-Fork, literally

In north California, outside the town of Gazelle, near the Oregon border, the story of Belcampo begins.  Belcampo raises cattle, chickens, pigs, turkey, sheep, and goats across 18,000 acres of land in an organic and sustainable manner.  All animals are able to graze freely in the pastures and is animal welfare approved.  20 miles down the road from Gazelle, in Yreka, California, Belcampo operates a 20,000 square foot food processing plant called “Belcampo Butchery”.  Not a typical meat processing plant that has a high level of automation, the butchery uses traditional hand-cutting methods which provides more skilled and higher-paying jobs to the local communities.


Belcampo Farm – Image credited to Modern Farmer

The meat is then delivered to seven Belcampo butcher shops and restaurants throughout California, including an outpost at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.  This allows the company to completely manage the entire process of farm-to-table, ensuring that all points of the process meet their high expectations.

Belcampo also runs “Meat Camps” throughout the year at their farm in Gazelle where “guests stay in luxury tents in our orchard, enjoy family style meals under the stars, and participate in open-fire grilling, basic butchery, and knife skill lessons to gain a thorough understanding of meat cookery.”  The cost is $1,400 USD per person (double occupancy, fork over another $600 if you want a tent to yourself), so it isn’t cheap.  But it’s cool and showing where the market is moving.  The June and September camps are already completely booked.

What are the take-aways for a concept such as Belcampo?  A highly-controlled process of farm-to-fork, where a single entity grows, processes, and cooks the food you eat.  Restaurants have already shown in recent years that they prefer to establish strong relationships with local farmers.  I expect to see this more and more, even if not to such a large-scale as Belcampo.


Belcampo Grand Central Market – Image Credited to


Food Hubs Continue to Build Momentum

I have covered food hubs in several blog posts over the past year.  The State of Michigan has been one of the early adopters of food hubs, but as they become more mainstream and prevalent, they are spreading across North America.  The idea of a food hub is to create a central distribution point for the sale of farm-grown produce, including fruits, vegetables, meat, and other items which is produced by local farmers in a region.  The food is then sold to grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals, added-value manufacturing facilities, or distributed further afield to other states or provinces.  Basically, it acts a central location dedicated to selling local product.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food hub as a:

“centrally located business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally regional procured food products”

One of the biggest benefits of a food hub is it takes the distribution concerns off of the producers.  Many farmers have difficulty reaching certain distribution networks and are unable to always sell their crops.  A food hub acts as an sophisticated aggregation point that has the distribution networks in place.  This relieves producers of having to concentrate efforts on distribution, rather focusing more of their efforts on production.

One of the more interesting ones I have been following over the past year is the Food Hub recently established in Worcester, Massachusetts.  A city of approximately 185,000 residents has set-up a regional food hub that has three core areas:

  1. Aggregation, distribution, and marketing services
  2. Workforce development culinary training program
  3. Commercial kitchen incubators

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts has been tracking the establishment of the Worcester Regional Food Hub, which is a great case study for other municipalities to understand the implementation required for a food hub.  For a stable base of buyers, many of the “first customers” have been institutional uses such as schools and government facilities.  It will be interesting to track and see how Year 1 (2017) goes ahead for the food hub.


Worcester Food Hub Pilot Announcement – Image credited to Worcester County Food Bank

What I can say regarding this specific example is that the Regional Environmental Council and Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce have really put in the effort to do this right.  Rather than setup a food hub right away, two years of planning and trials were conducted to ensure that the concept was correct, the location was optimal, the funding was in place, and the right people were ready to run the operation.

Urban Farming for Property Tax Breaks

It has been interesting to read on the initiative that the State of California has been pushing forward regarding regarding farms in urban areas.  Property owners are being provided incentives to turn their blighted/greyfield sites into urban farms.  In return, the property owners are taxed at the same rate as irrigated farmland ($11,000/acre), much much lower than what they would be if a vacated building was sitting on the property.

The benefits are double sided.  Not only does the property owner get a large tax break; communities are able to turn a blighted property into a green space in the city that has the ability to provide hundreds of pounds of produce to local residents and restaurants.  Once the property owner is ready to redevelop the site, they are then taxed at typical municipal rates.

The requirements for a property owner are:

  • City or County must have a minimum of 250,000 residents
  • Property must be 0.1 to 3 acres in size
  • No dwellings on site
  • The property must be used as a farm for a minimum of 5 years to qualify for the tax break

I could see property owners being hesitant to go forth with this endeavor due to the 5 year minimum.  Real estate property markets are continually changing, and locking a site in a dense urban area could be difficult from an investment point of view.  There are likely many sites though that will not feasibly see development occur in the short term; this is where property owners could be very calculated, saving money on property taxes while looking to benefit the local community.

Read more about it at SFGate

Pizitz Food Hall Opens in Birmingham

Five months ago I discussed the highly anticipated Pizitz Food Hall at The Pizitz development in Birmingham, Alabama.  The mixed-use development is anchored by a progressive food hall that brings forth many new international concepts that are new to consumers in Alabama such as Korean, Jewish, and Ethiopian.

The Pizitz Food Hall has been having a soft opening over the past week, but the most intriguing concept for myself is Reveal Kitchen.  Reveal is a restaurant incubator space created in partnership between the developer Bayer Properties and REV Birmingham.  Tropicaleo was chosen as the first entrant to Reveal Kitchen and will be dishing out authentic Puerto Rican food.  Reveal Kitchen will have a new tenant every four-to-six months which will allow local culinary entrepreneurs who don’t have a high amount of capital to try and test new concepts.  If they are successful during their stay at Reveal, they can try to grab a permanent spot at Pizitz Food Hall, or lease a retail storefront nearby.

It will be interesting to monitor the Reveal Kitchen space over the next few years and see the success of the incubated companies.


Reveal Kitchen at Pizitz Food Hall – Image credited to


Urban Food Hub Developing in North End of Detroit

The idea of an Agri-Hood in the past has always been a suburban context.  Agri-Hoods have popped up around the United States over the past few years, most of them still in the planning or construction phase.  I have viewed Agri-Hoods as America’s new “golf course community”, where houses on large lots meander between green areas, ponds, orchards, vegetable gardens, and greenhouses.  Instead of a Par 3 behind your house, you might have a grove of apple trees.  Agri-Hoods are a fascinating idea, however two major issues have come up so far:

  1.  Agri-Hoods perpetuate urban sprawl that has plagued North American cities for the past 70 years.  The low density nature of Agri-Hoods mean that they are entirely car dependent, and they are not likey to have public transportation as an available mode of connectivity.
  2. In current Agri-Hoods, the amount of agriculture in comparison to residential is minimal.  Some Agri-Hoods feature less than 10% of agriculture in comparison to residential.  “Greenwashing” becomes an issue since developers are capitalizing on a trend to sell real estate.

In Detroit, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is creating what they call America’s first urban Agri-Hood on a 3-acre development site.  MUFI is a non-profit organization that “engage members of the Michigan community in sustainable agriculture”.

The  Agri-Hood in this context is very different, where an agricultural community hub is being built on the North Side of Detroit to generate urban renewal and provide sustainable healthy food to the local community.  A dilapidated three-story building will be re-imagined as a Community Resource Center that will include operational space for the non-profit organization, along with multi-purpose rooms for culinary and agricultural education, and industrial kitchens for business incubators.

MUFI Community Resource Center - Image credited to MUFI

MUFI Community Resource Center – Image credited to MUFI

Across the street from the Community Resource Center is MUFI’s 2-acre urban farm that has already produced over 50,000 pounds of produce for the local community.  This food is distributed to households in a 2-mile radius through a “pay-what-you-can” model, local markets, restaurants, as well as churches and shelters.

While I’m not sure if this should be classified as an urban Agri-Hood just yet, it definitely is a Food Hub, where produce is grown and then distributed in an organized network throughout Detroit.  The development concepts display a small orchard and vineyard on two other properties behind the urban farm, so the tentacles of an urban Agri-Hood are spreading.  This is a great case study that demonstrates how culinary uses can be used to positively generate urban renewal, all while feeding the local population.

Check out the MUFI website to see the site development plan and read more about this exciting project.

MUFI Urban Farm - Image credited to MUFI

MUFI Urban Farm – Image credited to MUFI

Food Security and Food Halls

CityLab published an excellent article last week that discussed the Pizitz Food Hall and how it can assist in overcoming the food desert in downtown Birmingham.  I profiled the Pizitz mixed-use project  a little while back, with its culinary component being a food hall and restaurant incubator.  What I did not realize, are the surrounding issues that downtown Birmingham has faced over the past several decades with feeding its local residents.  The food hall, restaurant incubator, and a brand-new Publix grocery store located a few blocks away will remedy some of the concerns that people have faced with local food security.


Pizitz Food Hall – Image credited to Bayer Properties

My favorite part of the article is whether grocery stores or food halls can actually bring more awareness to eating healthy and local:

But will this crack downtown Birmingham’s food desert problem? There’s certainly excitement in Birmingham over these new arrivals, but researchers are “far from consensus” on how to alleviate food deserts, says Michele ver Ploeg, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. One commonsense approach is to give the green light to initiatives that aim to promote public health by bringing fresh and healthy food into a community at an affordable cost. Supermarkets are often the go-to intervention, since they tend to be fairly affordable and offer a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.

But the influence of supermarkets on healthy eating is less clear. In 2014, a study in Philadelphia found that increased access to grocery stores did not ultimately result in healthier eating habits; meanwhile, a study in Pittsburgh found that a supermarket did promote healthier eating habits, but not because people were actually shopping there. As Laura Bliss reported for CityLab, the entire neighborhood’s eating habits improved regardless of whether residents switched to shopping at the new grocery store.

Food halls play an even fuzzier role in eliminating food deserts, as a relatively new phenomenon that operates somewhere between a restaurant and a market. Ver Ploeg points out that restaurants may help fill gaps in a food desert, but their prices may curb accessibility for those in lower income brackets. Meanwhile, prepared foods are mostly not eligible for SNAP benefits. It’s worth noting, too, that many of Birmingham’s lower-income families now reside in neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, in areas that remain without either a grocer or a food hall.

There are no concrete answers from an academic point of view, but these are trends that are sometimes hard to quantify, especially since healthy eating habits can require a very long transition timeline.  What I do believe is that providing local residents with a wide-array of food choices along with proper education will ultimately be an added benefit to society, ultimately creating healthy and sustainable communities over the long-term.  Residents require choice.  Not just an organic produce market, and not just McDonalds, but everything in between.

I’m a big believer in the idea of a food hub, especially for cities that have to deal with large swaths of food deserts.  The concept that residents are able to learn, eat, and purchase good within the culinary realm, all in one place is highly important.  And much of the time, it won’t be induced by a grocery store moving into a neighborhood or a cool taco shop (as much as I love cool taco shops).  There needs to be a local grassroots component to increasing food access and healthy eating choices. Which is why in the case of Birmingham, it is great to see that REV Birmingham, an economic development agency is so involved in attempting to ensure that the food movement stays local, and for locals that require food accessibility, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Now, I understand that the idea of a food hub is just in its infancy and it is still very difficult to make sense of it from a financial sense for a private developer.  But the idea of a food hub that contains the components of a food hall, grocery store, education, food distribution, incubator, commercial kitchens, among other items is something that public officials should get excited about from a community building standpoint.  One way to counteract financial risk is to not have all components within one development.  We need to be INNOVATIVE.  What if a city planning department is able to create a new zoning typology where culinary-related land uses and developments are given preference and receive certain incentives?   Are there other policies out there that governments can take advantage of?

Getting back to Pizitz, I do think this is a great step in providing economic stability to an area that has obviously gone through great upheaval.  The addition of the food hall, incubator, and grocery store will add much needed vitality to a once struggling neighborhood that was considered a food desert.  Now lets see how it performs once it opens in December.