ALTON — An unusual threefold plan to build on local business will kick off this month with the launch of a long-planned food hub project in Alton.
The project is a complexity of interwoven ingredients designed to sustain each other. One is a food hub that aims to get fresh, locally grown food products to local users. The second establishes a business incubator to build start-up companies. And the third creates commercial kitchen rental space that will generate a revenue stream to run the incubator and serve as a modest source of income for the kitchen owners, all of which are charitable in nature.
A public, fund-raising kickoff will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 13, at the Alton Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1308, 4445 N. Alby St. The buffet is $15 a person. The VFW has a kitchen that gets little use and will be utilized as part of the commercial kitchen rental plan.
The key to the plan is the vendor network now involved in Alton’s successful Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market, which this spring moves to a new location on the southeast corner of the intersection of Henry Street and Landmarks Boulevard.
The food project, in the works for about two years, is being coordinated by the Alton Area Business Development Association, an administrative body formed to run what’s being called the Great Rivers Market Fresh Network, the working name for the combined incubator/food hub/commercial kitchen.
“The food hub movement across this country is no accident. It’s gaining traction everywhere it goes,” said Ron Tanner, a participant who publicly presented the plan for the first time at a meeting sponsored by the Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
The association’s network hopes to broker unused commercial kitchen space to businesses and groups that need it.
“But the network is more than that,” Tanner said. “It’s also access to financial networks. It’s also training and education, mentoring and such. It’s a lot more than just an incubator or food hub, it’s a whole network of opportunities to expand small business.”
Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey is collaborating on the project, and Tanner gives credit to college President Dr. Dale Chapman and others for helping narrow the focus and provide resources that helped the group apply for a $42,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant to run the program. Word is still awaited on the grant, but the effort is moving forward, regardless.
Liberty Bank of Alton is also an active sponsor.
RiverBend Growth Association President Monica Bristow has also been active in shaping the organization, as a member of the original business association board and now as an advisor.
The Alton Area Business Development Association is run by a volunteer board. Doug Schneiderheinze, an instructor at LCCC, will soon assume the presidency. Ann Bromaghim (the original president), Dave Fingerhut and Tanner will all be vice presidents and coordinate the areas of operations, administration and training and education.
SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, has agreed to help screen potential candidates in the incubator project.
“(At the kickoff). we will be explaining to our business community and all the regional stakeholders what’s going on with Alton Area Business Development Association and the Market Fresh Network,” Tanner said.
“The centerpiece really is the incubator. The whole idea is to cultivate businesses that are relevant to our market,” he said. “We came up with our incubator’s focus to be on hospitality, retail, food, food production and ... the arts. People kind of raise an eyebrow when they hear, ‘the arts,’ but the arts go hand and glove with food and hospitality. They are often the entertainment centerpiece for the activities that go on around food. Our market is a tourism market. A lot of our economic engines center around tourism.”
The farmers’ involvement
Sara McGibany, the executive director of Alton Main Street, which manages the Farmers’ Market, said her organization is reaching out to more than 100 local food producers in its vendor database. Eventually, participants will be taking fresh, unprocessed products to climate-controlled storage space at the former Central Electric Building in the 400 block of Ridge Street. Property owner Denny Scarborough gave the business association what it calls an “attractive lease.”
The Alton Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market has been in existence in various locations for more than 20 years and has grown vendor participation by 600 percent since 2007.
“The vast majority of our vendors are farmers who grow their products within a 50-mile radius of Alton, although a few within a 100-mile radius have been grandfathered in,” she said.
Unlike some area markets, no reselling or wholesaling of product is allowed. Every product at the Alton Market is handmade or homegrown by the family operating the booth.
“In recent years we have enjoyed a successful partnership with our local Sierra Club chapter to champion the local foods movement in the Alton area through methods such as urban farm tours and ‘field to plate’ dinners,” McGibany said.
Part of Main Street’s strategic plan has been to increase connectivity between the farmers who participate in the market and area restaurants.
“Chefs from a select few restaurants, such as Bossanova Restaurant and Lounge (in Alton), have been shopping at the market regularly to acquire ingredients for seasonal specials, but we realized that in order for the concept to fully take off we needed to make it as convenient as possible to acquire fresh ingredients.”
Having a centralized warehouse for distribution allows a restaurant to pick up products from multiple sources at the same time, and it saves farmers time by eliminating the need to be away from the fields making multiple deliveries, she said.
The grocery store
The old Central Electric property also will house a separate neighborhood grocery store being launched as a cooperative by a trio of community leaders — McGibany and Christine Favilla and Dr. Jackie Burns.
Supporters are still trying to determine whether the store will be incorporated as a non-profit or as an L3C, which is a hybrid of a non-profit/for profit that was created in 2013 for social enterprise businesses, McGibany said.
“The primary goal of the co-op grocery will be to serve residents of the Hunterstown neighborhood, which has been deemed by the USDA as a ‘food desert,’ meaning that affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain. The secondary goal is to provide healthy, affordable all-natural food and home products (locally-sourced whenever possible) to a growing constituency from the Alton area who currently drive to West County to shop at chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
“Basically we are serving the same function as the food hub. We are the retail component and they are wholesale, all under the same roof. It’s turning out to be a wonderfully symbiotic relationship,” she said.
How it all connects
For a $50 annual fee and related access costs, people like farmers and restaurateurs can take advantage of the food hub. A restaurant or caterer wanting to add capacity can gain access to more kitchen space. Kitchens at the Eagles, VFW and some local churches are being made available. Tanner said.
“The pricing will all be affordable and it will all be in terms of support services. Financial and legal advice, brand development, mentorship, business planning and accountability (meaning milestones must be met). If you’re not doing that, you won’t last in the incubator, and you’re not going to last in business.”
He added: “You don’t want to have to baby-sit entrepreneurs. They have to be self-motivated.”
The idea is to help fledgling businesses get on the right path “so we don’t have so many failures in our market,” he said.
Regarding the commercial kitchen space, the association is looking at a $30 an hour charge for the brokered space. The association would make sure the kitchens are maintained. Revenues will be shared with the kitchen owner.
After a slow start, the food hub has “gone from zero to 100 in about five seconds,” Tanner said of recent interest.
The fund-raiser on May 13 will feature food grown locally and be prepared in the VFW’s commercial-grade kitchen.
The business association is looking for participants and is already finding commitments. Both Senior Services Plus in Alton and Lewis and Clark Community College, which prepare thousands of meals each day, are interested, Tanner said.
Fingerhut, who has long been involved in Alton area development projects, speaks fondly about the early stages of the food hub discussion.
“The excitement took a long time to build,” he said.
He credits the efforts of people like Bromaghim and McGibany, who have been with the project from the beginning, as has the city.
“We were meeting initially monthly and now we’re down to weekly and we have to be careful we don’t burn ourselves out. The partnering approach involved sparks — mostly from Sara and Ann in the beginning. Then the sparks came from everybody.”
The lack of funding could have been a big factor early. A year ago, the group put together a state proposal for $175,000 grant but failed to make the cut. Undeterred, the board members continued.
“We decided to bootstrap it and see how far we could go with no money,” Fingerhut said. “It involved a whole lot of people staying with us.”
Tom Hoechst, who was mayor when the group started, said members’ efforts are a credit to perseverance.
“I watched when (they) started this, and I want to commend (them) for sticking with this. It didn’t have a very bright future in the beginning. It’s always hard to get to the point where they are, and they have been very diligent with that and are to be commended.”