Even as a kid, Traverse City entrepreneur Ryan Wells knew just how hard it is to make a small business succeed. He remembers sitting in his dad’s truck, watching his father, who ran the family’s property management company, reluctantly hand out eviction notices to owners of fledgling but failing businesses.

Now 41, Wells is putting his experience and energy into an idea he hopes will help a new generation of Traverse City entrepreneurs avoid that fate. It’s a food business incubator called Center City Kitchen, which is cheap, efficient and designed to help those with great ideas walk before they try to run. [Looking for more inspiration on working in Northern Michigan?  Look here.]

Center City KitchenIncubator kitchens aren’t exactly a new idea. And frankly, they have a little bit of a mixed track record of surviving as businesses themselves. Tell us how you’re approaching this.
Well, it’s true. The basic idea is the same. In the food industry, you’re required to have a license, and you have to do your work in a certified commercial kitchen. So there’s an entry-level cost barrier that doesn’t always fit the needs of somebody who’s got a one-day-a-week food business that they’re trying to get off the ground. So at the most basic level, we help them save on overhead. But a lot of incubator kitchens do an hourly rental rate. And I always thought that went against the grain of the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t want anyone looking at the clock, rushing through something, wishing they’d bought more time; or have the next person looking at their watch because they need the same equipment.

What’s your fix?
So with us, you sign on, we have a base rate of $400 a month, you get the keys, and then you have 24-7 access. With that kind of approach, scheduling is important. But we want it to feel like it’s yours, like it’s a space you can take a client or your mom and dad and show it off.

You’re calling it Center City Kitchen, but it’s actually more than just a rent-a-kitchen.
Yeah, and it’s not just for startups either. For instance, if you’re already doing business, but you just need some overflow production space for a special event, we can accommodate you. Caterers also fit in well here because they can prep and produce all their stuff when they have catering gigs. We also provide meeting spaces and presentation spaces, so people can wow and woo prospective clients and host samplings. We’ve also worked with food trucks that might use the kitchen space for morning prep, and then come back at the end of the day to dispose of their gray water. We also have plans—it’s sort of a standing offer to all our chefs—to use the space for some light retail. Basically, whatever our chefs need, it’s open for conversation.

And so far so good?
Definitely. For example, one of the big successes so far is this company called Seafood Driven, which is a pop-up restaurant/food truck/caterer. That’s how it works these days—you’ve got to do a little of everything. They’re based out of Ann Arbor, but they contacted me because they had an opportunity to do a catering gig in November here and they needed a kitchen to prepare their seafood dishes. They thought they were so successful that they decided to relocate and stay up here. So they’re transitioning now into making Traverse City their home base for their business. And we’re happy to help them make that happen.

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Photo(s) by Dave Weidner