Non-Profit Aims to Lower Barriers for Low Income Entrepreneurs
HARLEM — A street food vendor in East Harlem trying to take their business to the next level often has several tough obstacles to overcome.
"If you have to choose between getting materials, paying rent or incorporating your business, you are not going to incorporate your business," said Beatriz Mieses-Hernandez, a community liaison at Hot Bread Kitchen at La Marqueta, a non-profit bakery that runs HBK Incubates, a year-old business incubator in East Harlem.
The incubator, a project of the City Council and the Economic Development Corporation, tries to cut through some of those obstacles by providing immigrant and minority women access to modern facilities, training to get food-handling certificates and even English as a second language classes at low cost.
But the cost of insurance, incorporation papers and health licenses needed to take part in the services offered by the incubator can be between $2,000 and $5,000, placing it out of the reach of many. To tackle the problem, HBK Incubates is using a grant from Citibank to create the Low Income Food Entrepreneurs program and lower the entry barriers even further.
"We founded the incubator with an eye on helping women immigrants, but we realized it was a challenge for many because even the initial investment was a barrier to entry," said Jessamyn Waldman, executive director of Hot Bread Kitchen.
"We want to do everything possible to get our target market in here," added Waldman.
The new LIFE program will target minorities, especially those from Upper Manhattan, making less than the area median income of $33,700 per year. Costs to enter the incubator's programs will be almost 80 percent less than normal, said Mieses-Hernandez.
After a year in the program, the goal is that low-income entrepreneurs will have grown their business enough to enter the incubator's standard program where they could stay for another two to three years.
"We are looking for people who are already entrepreneurs but can't get to a place where they can post a positive cash flow but are just making and selling and can't grow their business," said Waldman.
"We want to incubate the next Goya," she said of the giant Spanish food chain.
Already, Hot Bread Kitchen at La Marqueta is having success with its incubator which is capable of running 24 hours, 7 days a week but is currently at about 50 percent capacity.
The incubator houses ethnic food vendors such as "A Taste of Ethiopia" and the Senegalese "Pierre Thian Catering." Another woman makes sofrito, a Spanish seasoning. "Hella Bitter" makes bitters for alcoholic beverages. Other participants make chocolates, cookies and healthy drinks.
Hot Bread Kitchen's move to East Harlem makes sense because of the "thriving food culture" here, said Waldman.
"It's surpassing my expectations. We had no idea there would be so many super creative and innovative entrepreneurs as we have now," said Waldman.
The participants sell their goods to farmers' markets, perform catering and package their food for sale to supermarkets. On a busy afternoon recently, women in the training program twisted raisin dough into knots and placed sesame seeds on top of hamburger buns waiting to be baked.
Alberto Loera, 29, works for Taste of Ethiopia, a food vendor at the incubator.
"There are plenty of obstacles to growing the business like language barriers, not enough education and not having the budget," said Loera whose mother also works as a street food vendor.
"People in this community need the opportunity. I want to see my people making an honest living and having the opportunity to be a business owner."