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Allen Neighborhood Center gives restaurant entrepreneurs opportunity to test out their business

jose stir fry
Megan Schellong
Tantay owner Jose Aste cooking in the Allen Neighborhood Center's Accelerator Kitchen.

A shared cooking space at Lansing’s Allen Neighborhood Center Accelerator Kitchen is offering entrepreneurs a chance to test out their food business without the large expenses that come with owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

In 2013, former Allen Neighborhood Center director Joan Nelson was approached by locals in Lansing’s East Side who asked if they could use the center’s commercial kitchen to start their food businesses.

That’s when Nelson and the staff had their light bulb moment.

incubator kitchen
Megan Schellong
The Allen Neighborhood Center's incubator kitchen.

"And so we thought why not a food incubator?" Nelson said.

The kitchen was made available to rent by the hour for brand-new businesses just hitting the ground. Nelson said the space quickly became popular.

"We were surprised at how quickly the word spread about the availability. And it has never slowed down," Nelson said.

Soon enough, the incubator’s demand led to the addition of the center’s accelerator kitchen in 2019. The second cooking area allows four businesses at a time to lease space on a monthly basis.

The accelerator kitchen is for businesses with a solidified and proven concept.

Folks need to graduate from the incubator in order to be accepted into the accelerator.

Kitchen manager Matt Jones says the accelerator kitchen is a more cost-effective means for entrepreneurs who were always using the incubator kitchen.

“We noticed that gap from going from hourly rental to getting your own location at market rate in the Lansing area is still pretty substantial. So, we ended up coming up with the accelerator kitchen as that intermediate step," Jones said.

The 800-square foot commercial cooking space is currently shared by a cheesecake maker, a halal Korean stir-fry shop, a baker, and a Peruvian restaurant.

jose veggie stir fry
Megan Schellong
Jose Aste plates a veggie stir-fry in the Allen Neighborhood Center's Accelerator Kitchen on September 8, 2022.

A few years ago, Jose Aste left his job in aviation and founded Tantay to pursue his passion of sharing Peruvian culture through food.

The restaurant's name is a word in Quechua, the native language of the Incas.

"And what Tantay means is to bring people together, to join," Aste said.

Tantay didn’t start in the accelerator.

Aste first cooked his favorite childhood dishes out of other people’s homes, through private catering.

"The point of going into people’s homes was to gain some capital to come in here," Aste said.

After Aste made enough money to purchase retail and food service licenses, he was able to work out of the incubator kitchen.

Then in 2021, Aste was accepted into the accelerator.

"I was really really excited to get in, to be selected because it was that next stepping stone for us, you know, a lot more to learn too," Aste said.

matt jones
Megan Schellong
Matt Jones in the kitchen manager at the Allen Neighborhood Center Accelerator Kitchen.

Jones said the start-ups were selected based on several other criteria: Their five-year business goals, scalability, type of meal and number of employees.

"But for four makers, that's only about three employees, one at a time for each station. Otherwise, it gets too full in here," Jones said.

The restaurants don’t just share space. From stove tops to rice warmers, cooks also split the use of appliances.

But they’re not competing with each other.

Because of the nature of the kitchen, Nelson said the center also ensures participating businesses are open to being in such close quarters.

"They have to play well with others," Nelson said.

Joe Enerson, the center's current executive director, said it's important that the chefs aren't all working at the same time.

"For example, we couldn't have four businesses that all did dinner service at the same time, we need to have businesses that can share the kitchen effectively," Enerson said.

Aste says the guidance from the accelerator, coupled with the challenges of a pandemic, caused him to think more strategically about his business.

jose aste
Megan Schellong
Jose Aste poses for a picture inside his food truck at the Meridian Township Farmer's Market.

"You know, not go super crazy on risk and get a bunch of money on loans or you know, get a big credit card and just start buying all this equipment and all this stuff," he said.

Aste said working with the Allen Neighborhood Center has helped him scale his business and fulfill the legacy he wants to leave behind.

"I want to leave behind a different way of bringing Peruvian food. A concept that does not discriminate, is inclusive, brings everyone together," Aste said.

Aste said in 10 years, he hopes to see more Tantays popping up around the state. And that’s not totally out of reach.

A quarter of the businesses that started in the center’s incubator kitchen have gone on to open their own brick and mortar shops.

Enerson said that's the ultimate goal.

"The hope is that they do leave to open their own bricks and mortar restaurant. The idea is that we are preparing them to further the next step, the next step being sole proprietorship."

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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