Incubator kitchen brings hope, opportunity to Grand Rapids food startups

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Inside Kzoo Station, a new incubator launching in Grand Rapids’ Boston Square Business District, Jeanetta Hudnell talks enthusiastically about the business she hopes to build there.

The grandmother, who lives half a mile from the Southeast Side kitchen, started pickling vegetables during the COVID-19 pandemic and serving them to friends and family on hot dogs, sandwiches and charcuterie boards. After completing a Spring entrepreneurship program hosted by GR, he decided to take his hobby to the next level and launch Papa’s Peppers.

“I take my idea and it comes to life,” said Hudnell, who plans to lease space in the incubator’s kitchen to get Papa’s Peppers up and running.

Papa’s Peppers is an example of the type of business Spring GR and community development group Amplify GR are looking to foster at Kzoo Station. The two organizations teamed up to create the kitchen, located at 1445 Kalamazoo Ave. SE and which was completed in December, with the aim of providing a place for food businesses and restaurants to launch or expand.

Rental space in the 1,400-square-foot kitchen, owned by a limited liability company affiliated with Rockford Construction, costs $20 an hour.

Inside the building, a former car dealership that has been vacant for years, users have access to a bright new kitchen with two electric convection ovens, a deep fryer, a flat-top grill, a grill, a stove-top and 12 stove as well as a freezer and cold storage. Ten or six tenants are expected to use the space by April after obtaining the necessary licenses.

John Ippel, executive director of Amplify GR, a nonprofit working to redevelop several Southeast Side neighborhoods, said the idea for the kitchen was born out of community conversations.

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“Food really became one of those things that a lot of neighbors had a passion for, were very skilled at, and in many cases were operating small businesses out of their kitchens,” he said.

Kzoo Station, which cost about $600,000 to complete, is one of the first projects Amplify has completed in the Boston Square Business District.

The nonprofit was created by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation and the Cheri DeVos Foundation with the goal of redeveloping the Cottage Grove, Boston Square and Madison Square neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are located in the third ward of the city, which is home to a large part of the city’s black population and has not shared in the same level of investment as other parts of the city.

After renovations were completed in December, Kzoo Station is slowly coming along.

On Wednesday morning, Debbie Mitchell, owner of Momma D’s Kitchen, met with a Kent County Health Department worker at Kzoo Station to receive a license to begin using the space this week.

“It’s a new facility, which means everything is working well, and they have programs going on here to help entrepreneurs succeed,” said Mitchell, a Spring GR graduate whose business sells barbecue sauce and barbecue food.

Mitchell, 55, said he has leased space from other kitchen incubators in the area, including Downtown Market in Grand Rapids and Prep Space in Wyoming. He decided to come to Kzoo Station after Spring GR told him about the kitchen.

“I can network better here because it’s probably Spring GR students who are here,” said Mitchell, who operates a mobile food cart and sells his barbecue sauce at Bridge Street Market, Sobie Meats and the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market.

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Spring GR, a business venture created by the DeVos family, will manage Kzoo Station.

Three program areas are planned for the space: Idea Lab, a Kitchen Incubator Program, and Maker Space.

Idea Lab is a free and open workshop, available to anyone, designed to offer advice to residents with an idea for a food business.

The Kitchen Incubator Program is a 15-week course designed to provide food entrepreneurs with the knowledge to launch and grow their businesses and obtain the necessary licenses and certifications. Ten to 12 people can participate in the program, which is held twice a year.

The last area, Maker Space, is for food businesses that are licensed, insured and certified in proper food safety procedures, and are willing to rent space in the kitchen for $20 an hour. The goal is to have five or six of these tenants by April.

Arlene Campbell, director of Spring GR, says, “Our mission is to help businesses grow and become profitable so they can grow and do what they dream about.

Sitting at a table inside the kitchen, Hudnell talks about his dream of selling his pickled peppers to restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets and more. One mix he’s excited about is jalapeno peppers and brussels sprouts.

“I know people have never heard of this before, but we’re making it work,” said Hudnell, who has spent her adult life serving as a mother, caregiver and “professional student.”

“My father had just died, and I was his caregiver, and I needed to make a change in my life. So this is my time, and this is a great opportunity to take my idea and make it into a business.”

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Other entrepreneurs who plan to use the kitchen include Shantal Ferrell, owner of Savor the Flavor, as well as Kayla Munoz, owner of Let’s Taco.

Officials expect Kzoo Station to benefit from other developments Amplify has planned for the area.

In partnership with neighbors, Amplify created a plan to redevelop a nine-acre area in the Boston Square Business District bounded east and west by Fuller and Kalamazoo avenues, and north and south by Adams and Ramona streets.

The plan calls for 101 mixed-income apartments, retail space, a community center and early childhood education center, a park, green space and more. A formal groundbreaking date for the apartments has not been set. However, Amplify was granted a housing tax credit for the project, Ippel said.

Once the housing is completed, it will give a boost to the businesses in Kzoo Station, he said.

“I imagine a day where there are a hundred new families living across the street and what that will mean for their business in terms of having a hundred potential new customers,” he said. “It provides more convenience and opportunities for families, but also provides more business opportunities for those who will work at Kzoo Station.”

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