ARTICLE: City incubator hatches culinary entrepreneurs

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City incubator hatches culinary entrepreneurs

The 2,000-square-foot facility in northwest Toronto offers a commercial-grade kitchen, mentors and advice on finance and marketing

JENNIFER LEWINGTON The Globe & Mail

As newcomers to Canada in the late 1990s, India-born chef Hemant Tallur and his wife Minal dreamed of starting a food business that captures the ethnic diversity of Toronto.

Their idea - signature dishes from India, the Caribbean and the Philippines packaged as ready-to-eat meals for the North American market - was a blend of his recipes and her expertise in food technology.

Now their fledgling business is getting a boost from a new facility, unveiled yesterday, intended to nurture entrepreneurs in the city's specialty food industry.

"Someone who starts something new needs help to learn all the nuances of business," said Mr. Tallur, who left a high-paying computer job to launch his new food career. "You keep a baby in an incubator until it gets healthy," he said with a laugh. "I am a big baby."

The new Toronto Food Business Incubator provides a certified, commercial-grade kitchen, peer mentors and advice on finance, food safety and marketing to selected start-ups, - like the Tallurs' Eat-In - that come in with a business plan, recipes and financial backers.

Yesterday's opening had the cheerful air of a maternity ward after a birth.

As Mr. Tallur hovered with parent-like pride, chef Mohan Sunal ladled out dal chawal (slow-cooked black lentils) and tikka masala (marinated chunks of chicken), which are among the products Eat-In now prepares onsite and sells to specialty food stores.

"Immigrants come to Canada from different backgrounds and they become true Canadians," Mr. Tallur said. "This is a perfect opportunity for ethnic foods to be called truly Canadian."

The 2,000-square-foot facility on Rivalda Road in northwest Toronto, set up with three-year funding from the federal government, the city and its Toronto Economic Development Corp., can serves as many as nine entrepreneurs who pay a registration fee of up to $750, and $30 an hour for the use of the kitchen.

"It not only takes an idea, it takes passion and a tremendous amount of courage to step into the unknown," said Barbara Shopland, chairwoman of the non-profit incubator and on staff at George Brown's culinary centre.

Toronto Councillor Kyle Rae (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), chairman of council's economic development committee, sees the incubator "as the first step in a larger vision we have to create a food processing and innovation centre" in a city where manufacturing jobs are fast disappearing.

With industry and government support, the city hopes to set up a 433,000-square-foot facility to spur commercial applications of culinary ideas.

Toronto's food "cluster," ranked third in North America by size in 1999, is a little-known giant that employs more than 40,000 people and generates $20-billion in sales.

Kraft Canada and Campbell Soup are big industry names here, but small and medium-size firms account for 75 per cent of sector jobs.

Specialty food businesses, like those under development at the incubator, are growing twice as fast as the industry average, catering to multiethnic and mainstream consumers, city officials say.

Capitalizing on the trend is the ambition of 30-year-old Adeola Oluyomi and her husband Kola.

They are turning their breakfast catering business into a wholesale maker of a high-fibre, low-fat breakfast cookie.

"There is not a lot of convenient breakfast food that is healthy," said Ms. Oluyomi, who met her husband at the University of Nigeria and joined him in Canada in 2001. "I thought I would create my own options."

With the incubator, she pays for the kitchen when she needs it, and has full access to advice on packaging and marketing contacts.

"It's like a dream come true," she said.