Group wants to create incubator kitchen

L-R: Dillehunt, Lacklen, Putnam and Zimmerman
L-R: Dillehunt, Lacklen, Putnam and Zimmerman

by Eric Ginsburg

The former Lotus Lounge nightclub looks nothing like it used to, gutted to make way for a yet-to-be-named tenant that new building owner Andy Zimmerman promises will be better for the neighborhood and community than the previous occupant, which generally played rap music and was loosely tied to two downtown shootings.

A photography studio operating out of the back of the building on West Lewis Street in downtown Greensboro has left too, and the members and heavy machinery from the Forge makerspace across the street temporarily replaced it.

If things move according to plan — which they may not, considering that plans to entice Bestway Grocery to the site already failed — there will be a music venue here, taking up about 6,000 of the 14,000 square feet of space, according to Zimmerman. The new venue would offer “good listening music, not head-banging music,” he added, and he could see a variety of other uses for the rest of the space. Maybe a wine bar & bistro, if one interested party bites, or barcade. Worst-case scenario, he said, would be office space. The best case? Possibly an incubator kitchen.

For something like that to happen — the creation of a shared commercial kitchen that would help incubate new businesses, be it food trucks, catering companies, home bakers looking for a certified space — it’s going to take a tremendous amount of planning, commitment and capital. But last week, the first pieces started pulling together.

A small handful of people clustered in the midsection of the former Lotus Lounge, burrowing their faces into the tops of scarves and coats in the barely lit building as the sunlight faded. With Zimmerman acting as a nonchalant tour guide, the group shivered through his newly acquired building, stepping around construction equipment and debris. And so began the first meeting of the skeleton crew working to launch an incubator kitchen.

The path to successfully launching the project would likely be just as unglamorous as the lounge is now, but organizer Hayley Putnam pulled together a sort of dream team to jumpstart the motor. Among them Mary Lacklen, a woman with so many food-related qualifiers next to her name they hardly need to be mentioned, but suffice to say she’s been chipping away at this concept for about five years.

Dana Dillehunt, Putnam’s friend who works as a start-up strategist and creative consultant, and two people who would actually use such a kitchen — Rashelle Brooks of Mac & Cheese Ministry and Melinda Wolf of Brilliant Bakery — round out the squad.

And then there’s Dan Curry.

Curry runs his own consulting practice, and before that he headed up Clean Energy Durham, according to his LinkedIn page. But you probably recognize his name from his days as the city of Greensboro’s sustainability manager, or before that as the deputy director and development manager of the city’s department of housing and community development.

Since about October, Curry has been handing out small slips of paper to people as a way of announcing his intentions for a project that might relate to Putnam’s.

“An urban marketplace is being planned for downtown Greensboro,” it reads. “If you would like information about this unique retailing opportunity for 12-15 small businesses, contact Dan Curry at….”

As the informal business card suggests, the people in the room on Feb. 9 came to the table — they did eventually move to a table in a meeting room at HQ Greensboro co-working space across the street — for a variety of reasons. Until now, participants only met under the “Let’s Get GSO an Incubator Kitchen” Facebook group, and haven’t yet agreed on exactly what the project will entail. But with the prospect of space from Zimmerman, who also said he’d be willing to make a substantial investment to upfit the property including possibly paying for the kitchen equipment, there’s added incentive to work something out.

An indoor market with an adjoining incubator kitchen? A restaurant component to bolster the appeal of the planned music venue? A small storefront to help members sell their wares? Several ideas circulated during the meeting, and though things are just getting started, there’s a sense of urgency.

That’s because Brooks has struggled to operate her business in Guilford County, where she said the health department is more restrictive than where she previously operated in the Triangle. Zimmerman hopes to have a tenant for the rest of the building by June, which also imposes a deadline.

Curry drew up plans for a market before this, and impressed Zimmerman with the level of detail. But both of them, and everyone else in the room, would ideally like to see all of it come together symbiotically, involving a market, a kitchen and possibly other components.

One of the major sticking points of the discussion last week arose out of an attempt to discern exactly what would be legal, or allowed, in Guilford County, as attendees differed on what David Foust in the county health department had told them. Zimmerman eventually produced an email that appeared to show that a single commercial kitchen could be used by multiple parties as long as someone appropriately managed the space, running counter to what Lacklen said she’d previously been told.

Foust couldn’t be reached for comment before press time.

For Putnam, who had considered opening a cooking-based business with a friend but lacked a certified kitchen, and the other proponents of a shared space, it’s easy to find models around the state and nation including 7th Street Public Market in Charlotte and the Cookery, a culinary incubator in Durham. But to realize their hopes of making either a reality, they’ll need more clarity and people to bottom-line the vision.


Get involved by joining the Facebook group “Let’s Get GSO an Incubator Kitchen.”