Ten years ago, Lisa Raiola, who had just won a five-year battle with uterine cancer, stood in a century-old decommissioned school house on Main Street in Warren, and had a eureka moment.
While Lisa was undergoing cancer treatment, she radically transformed the way she ate, following Ayurveda, a whole-body healing system with roots in India that views diet as medicine. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know the provenance of our food. Because of my cancer diagnosis, that was something that I needed to know,” Lisa recalls. “It was a way to take back my own health.”
Eating while she was in treatment, however, was a challenge. Depleted by chemotherapy and reliant on family and friends to source the hard-to-find “clean” or whole and not-so-processed foods she needed, something so basic as eating was a struggle. When she emerged triumphant from her healthcare odyssey, she decided she wanted to create a meal delivery service that would bring whole-food prepared meals to people who, like her, were battling illness.
“I realized there had to be other people like me, who wanted to start a food business but didn’t have the commercial kitchen or the resources to do it,” she says. “I thought, why can’t we have a food incubator? Like a tech incubator, an innovation space, but for food.” When Lisa went home and Googled it, she found that there were approximately 80 food incubators across the country, and none in Rhode Island. That’s when inspiration struck and how she found herself in the cavernous school, all 18,000 square feet of it. It was 16,500 square feet larger than she needed for her upstart meal delivery business. It took five years of building and planning, and in November 2014, Hope & Main, Rhode Island’s first food incubator, opened its doors.
Now, Lisa stands in the welcoming community events space and points to a picture of a smiling Lenny Carlson holding a bottle of Avonaise, the vegan avocado mayonnaise brand that he launched through Hope & Main. “Lenny’s a great success story. He went national in a year!”
Lenny is just one of 33 foam-mounted posters that line the walls. As we walk through, Lisa points out success story after success story on the posters. The faces of the founders of each bespoke food business beam back at her.
Since opening their doors, Hope & Main has gone from fledgling food incubator to one of the top ten incubators in the United States. Three of their graduates have gone on to win the prestigious National Good Food Award. They have licensed over 200 new businesses and they boast a 50 percent success rate, which is massive in an industry where 99 percent of new businesses fail.
Lisa sank $150,000 of her own money into feasibilities studies, architects, engineers, and planners even before she even purchased the space. A USDA grant for $3 million helped her build out the old school to include five special-use kitchens, cold and dry storage, and commercial grade equipment. But even more integral to the start-ups that Hope & Main serves is the education and built-in community that they bring to their members.
“We are a vertically integrated incubator so we teach production and branding. We teach sales and distribution and finance,” she says. “A lot of people can make food, but not a business.”
This sentiment is echoed by recent Hope & Main graduate Paul Kubiski. The founder of Bootblack Brand, which creates small batch cocktail and soda syrups, says that without Hope & Main, “I would not have a business.”
In just three years, Bootblack can be found at specialty grocers, bars, and restaurants around Rhode Island and Massachusetts. This year, Fairway Market began stocking Bootblack in their 15 stores throughout New York City.
“When you’re passionate about your product, you tend to be myopic,” Paul says. “Hope & Main helps you determine if you have a viable product and helps get you up and running.”
“Making the product is one of the easiest parts of starting a food business,” concurs Johnson & Wales Associate Professor Michael Makuch, who is the director of their Ecolab Center for Culinary Science. “It’s the scaling that’s the challenge.”
Hope & Main offers members co-packaging services, where they manufacture, package, and label small batch products for makers. This enables businesses to scale up without the prohibitive costs.
With the high capitalization costs and high failure rates of food businesses, the incubation process makes these businesses more investable when they are ready to graduate by removing the risk of experimentation. At Hope & Main, if something fails in the incubation stage, the makers can stop and pivot.
Hope & Main member Pin Minyvong, founder of meal delivery service Minymeals, is in the middle of experiencing her own pivot. Pin began Minymeals by almost accident. After posting her clean Asian-inspired meals on Instagram, a friend asked her to prep meals for him. When he posted pictures of her meals on his Instagram, the orders started pouring in.
She joined Hope & Main in March of 2019 intending to expand her meal prep business. But then a Hope & Main staff member connected her with a catering job for a team building event.
As a member of the military, team building is in Pin’s DNA. She brought the idea of mixing team building strategies with a food competition (think: a team-building version of Chopped) to the client. The event was a success, garnering rave reviews on Yelp, which brought her more work in the team building arena. That one catering gig, connected through Hope & Main, turned into a whole new enterprise.
“I was just breaking even on meal prep,” she says. “My business plan changed for the better.”
Makers also can test their products through Hope & Main’s Schoolyard Market, a weekly outdoor event that features food from member businesses every Sunday throughout the summer. The Market is a way to invite the community to sample what’s cooking at Hope & Main while also serving as a test market for makers. From recipe tweaks to changes in marketing and branding, the immediate feedback is crucial to new business development.
But launching small businesses is only part of Hope & Main’s story. Lisa sees food production as a serious economic driver for the state. “We consume only one percent of what’s grown or caught in this state. Ninety-nine percent of our food leaves,” she says. “We have to add value to our growing agriculture industry.”
For example, a locally grown tomato is purchased by a local manufacturer who turns it into a jar of sauce. That sauce is then sold to a local grocer which is then purchased at the market. “That dollar changes hands three times within the state. It’s a basic form of economic development. If what you grow leaves the state, you get the least amount of value for the product.”
With the general public’s renewed focus on sourcing locally grown and sustainable food, incubators like Hope & Main are at the forefront of a new food movement. “There’s a high cost of Big Food,” says Lisa. “It’s not good for the environment. It’s not good for our health.”
Now that Hope & Main is up and incubating, Lisa wants to help turn Rhode Island into a food innovator for all of New England.
“The stresses on the food system are enormous – demand, climate change, increased world population, challenges with distribution. It’s a delicate system,” says Johnson and Wales’ Michael. “Local food systems have the same stressors as global systems. Incubators like Hope & Main can help relieve some of that stress.”
To that end, Hope & Main is taking part in the 50 by 60 goal, spearheaded by New England Food Vision. “The goal is to build the capacity to locally produce at least 50 percent of for all New Englanders by the year 2060,” Lisa explains. Right now, that number is ten percent.
“If we could have more value added production capacity and infrastructure – like a bottling facility, a high pressure pasteurization plant, individual quick frozen capabilities – we could do more in the state,” she says. “Rhode Island should be an innovator in New England on the production, manufacturing, and distribution of food.”
“We need opportunities to scale our food,” she continues. “Local means a smaller carbon footprint. It’s helping our economy. Local means you can’t export it.”
But beyond infrastructure, Lisa points out that it is crucial to build an ecosystem that cultivates makers and also educates the consumer on why it’s important to buy local. “At a certain scale, food isn’t food anymore,” she says. “It’s politics, it’s economics, it’s health. We need places like Hope & Main to lead the way.”