Entrepreneurs who want to start or grow a food business will be able to utilize a certified commercial kitchen in Akron as soon as renovations are complete at a former church on East Market Street that is now owned by The Well Community Development Corp.

The 100-year-old building is already being used by The Well for multiple initiatives designed to help bolster the surrounding Middlebury neighborhood, including the Compass Coffee shop. The organization has spent the past six months securing the funding to rehab the building’s kitchen to become Akron Food Works, an incubator for food entrepreneurs of all stripes: small catering businesses, food truck operators, bakers, hobbyists who want to sell their goods at a local farmers market and more. It hopes to have the kitchen upgraded, compliant with public health requirements and ready for business in the first quarter of 2019, said Curtis Minter Jr., The Well’s operations director.

He said the need for a facility that cuts the “red tape” for food business owners is clear.

“I have spoken to many entrepreneurs who have had to drive to Cleveland and Youngstown, for an hour or more, to produce their food product. Sometimes they have to transport special equipment, but they have done whatever is necessary to keep their businesses afloat,” Minter said. “So this will surely be an advantage for local food entrepreneurs in and around the city of Akron.”

Before that can happen though, the 960-square-foot kitchen needs upgrades in its electrical service, flooring, walls, lighting, ceiling and hood. The space is also being redesigned to allow for use by multiple people at the same time.

“In its current layout, we would not be able to do that, as it is sort of congested,” Minter said.

Five other spaces in the building that were previously classrooms and storage are also being renovated to create designated areas for dry goods storage, a cooler and a freezer.

The renovations, being designed with Payto Architects of Cleveland, will cost about $180,000. Funding is coming from several sources, including about $105,000 that The Well received from a grant obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Asian Services in Action Inc. (ASIA), which operates a weekly farmer’s market on The Well’s property in the summer.

In a news release announcing the grant, ASIA’s outgoing CEO, Michael Byun, called Akron Food Works a “solution that is community-specific and community-responsive.”

“The ultimate goal is to empower our small businesses, the engine of our local economy, and to accelerate the economic revitalization that is already well underway here,” he stated.

Minter said that he cannot praise ASIA enough for its help and willingness to partner to obtain the grant.

“This project would not come about had it not been for their graciousness to us,” he said.

The eBay Foundation, which has an initiative to support local businesses in Akron, also contributed $50,000, and several private donors have contributed, too, he said.

Gifts from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, GAR Foundation and the Akron Community Foundation will help cover first-year operating costs for the kitchen, including the salary for a kitchen manager, whom Minter hopes to hire by January.

Vendors will pay hourly rates to use the facility, which will be higher during daytime but lower in the evening and even lower overnight.

They will be able to take classes there as well. Minter said a course for people looking to start a food business will probably be offered quarterly and be held over the course of a few weeks. He said a second one on how to grow an existing food business will focus on aspects such as connecting with a mentor and gaining access to local retailers.

In an increasingly entrepreneurial economy, food incubators have increased 50% since 2013 to about 200 facilities across the United States, according to a survey conducted by Econsult Solutions Inc., American Communities Trust and Urbane Development.

Minter said that there have been at least two efforts to bring about a shared-use kitchen in Akron in the past decade that did not succeed.

“I’ve had the privilege to sit down with those folks, and they gave us their blessing. With the funding we have secured, this project is now sure to come to life next year,” he said.

The Well is already reaching out to local food entrepreneurs, with Minter saying he’s been in contact with more than 50. The Well also held a meet-up event recently at the Countryside Public Market in Akron to learn more about what they want and need to succeed.

“We want to meet food entrepreneurs right where they are,” Minter said.

“I think that what is most special about this project is the opportunity to cultivate the idea of food entrepreneurship and to give people permission to believe in themselves, and whatever they might produce,” he added.