Photo Credit: Andrew Williamson Photography
Written by Perry King
Food Starter boasts a 20,000 square-foot facility, specialized equipment, and programming targeted to entrepreneurs in the food and beverage space. It’s the first of its kind in Toronto — and the only food incubator in regular operation in Canada.
On any day of the week a visitor can see that Food Starter is a busy and well-oiled machine: The North York-based facility is buzzing from 7am to 8pm most days.
Dana McCauley, Food Starter’s executive director, was there from the very beginning. “I started in July 2015 and until late September I was the only employee,” explained McCauley. “This place looked and smelled like Satan’s armpit the first day I came in — it was an abandoned meat plant.”
McCauley’s first few months focused on construction, completing inspections, and recruiting the first crop of clients. With a vast and varied background in food, including stints at Kraft, General Mills, and Janes Family Foods — 25 years of work in marketing and product development — this was new territory for McCauley.
“I’m used to working in big corporations where you have lots of depth, in staff and management,” she said. “[Now], when they need help out back, I’ll go do dishes. I often buy milk for the coffee station.”
Operated by a not-for-profit board, with funding and support from the City of Toronto, Food Starter focuses on the very early stages of building a food business, to help entrepreneurs commercialize and scale up their operation. The facility offers both physical space and educational resources; some clients occupy accelerator units, with relevant equipment and hours set aside for production.
Clients also access seminars and programming. Some become full-time members with regular hours; others participate in boot-camp-style programs where they learn the ropes of running a food company in just 12 weeks.
Of course, clients shouldn’t have to rely on Food Starter forever; the incubator aims to give entrepreneurs enough experience to make it on their own.
“We…have training for all of them [to] assess where they have gaps and get them the right help,” said McCauley.
Food Starter’s origins date back to the late 2000s, when Michael Wolfson, a business development specialist for the City of Toronto, helped set up a pilot project: the Toronto Food Business Incubator.
“His insight from that experience, as well as from studies and a lot of smart economic development people, helped to come up with the vision and the value proposition of what we are here [today],” said McCauley.
The incubator still has growing to do. McCauley wants to eventually expand the facility to a 24/7 operation, and add equipment for dairy processing and beverage development.
The future is bright, and she loves the talent coming and out of the program.
“We’ve got a team of McGyvers, basically,” said McCauley.