Collaborating to support small businesses: CommonWealth Kitchen and Accion

Heather Yunger (left) receives personalized coaching at a Brewing the American Dream Speed Coaching event in Boston. Photo credit: Samuel Adams/BTAD.

Since the 2008 recession, small businesses have been at the heart of economic recovery in the U.S. In fact, small businesses in their first five years of operation create nearly all of the country’s net new jobs. However, small business owners are finding it increasingly difficult to start or grow their businesses. Small business bank lending has declined by 20% since the recession, even while loans to medium and large enterprises increase. This challenge is especially significant for women, minority, and immigrant entrepreneurs, as well as those who work in industries that banks consider “risky,” like food and beverage business owners.

Fortunately, many women are overcoming these challenges. In fact, the number of minority women-owned businesses in the U.S. grew by 315 percent between 2002 and 2012. These women have tremendous potential to positively impact their communities, and organizations like Accion and CommonWealth Kitchen are dedicated to making sure they have the resources they need to do just that.

CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK) is a food business incubator, brand accelerator, and food manufacturing social enterprise occupying an old warehouse in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. The organization works with more than 50 member businesses, including many Accion clients, at every stage of their journey. The incubator supports local entrepreneurs from developing business plans to label design to providing fully-equipped kitchen spaces. CWK serves as a great resource for Accion clients who need additional support in launching and scaling their businesses. Meanwhile, some of CWK’s member businesses are recommended to Accion in Boston when they need additional support and financial advice.

Women and/or people of color own 70 percent of CommonWealth Kitchen’s member businesses. During peak production, these businesses employed over 150 people, 70 percent of whom are women and/or people of color themselves.

The Kitchen is a buzzing hive of cooks. Whether it is a group of women making what seemed to be literal tons of tomato sauce, or a group of friends concocting imaginative dairy-free ice cream flavors, the sense of community and collaboration is palpable. Here entrepreneurs work side-by-side to perfect their products – exchanging ideas and sharing kitchens.

Accion client Deborah Taylor is one such entrepreneur. She and a small team make some of her famous spreadable fruits out of shared space at CommonWealth Kitchen. She received her first microloan through Accion serving the East Coast nearly 15 years ago. She has expanded her production, operating out of CWK’s incubator, and her spreads can now be found in grocery stores throughout Massachusetts.

Other CommonWealth Kitchen entrepreneurs include Cassandria Campbell of Fresh Food Generation and Heather Yunger of Top Shelf Cookies. Both Accion clients speak proudly of the collaborative environment at CWK, among entrepreneurs, the incubator, Accion, and the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program, which connects small food and beverage businesses with capital along with coaching, mentoring, and other tools to help them succeed.

Accion client Fresh Food Generation is run with the philosophy that everyone should eat well regardless of where they live or their level of income. The business includes a food truck during the warmer months and a year-round catering business. Co-founder Cassandria Campbell is a food justice advocate from the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston who realized she was continually traveling outside of her neighborhood to find healthy food. She and her business partner, Jackson Renshaw, developed their idea and won a local pitch competition. She explained the challenges of launching her business and offering healthier options in low-income communities, including replacing a café in a community health center that routinely sold soda and hot dogs for breakfast.

The crux of their business lies in partnerships with local farms, including some urban farming projects, and neighborhood alliances. CWK has proven to be an invaluable resource to Cassandria as well, allowing her to take on more catering jobs with a larger team, assisting her in marketing her product, and expanding her network of clients. As Fresh Food Generation continues to grow, Cassandria emphasized the importance of their supportive business network in their success to bringing affordable and sustainable food to her community.

Meanwhile, Heather Yunger’s superstitious Boston Bruins fandom and her “Black and Gold” cookies inspired her to leave her day job to start her own venture, which one day became Top Shelf Cookies. She would make her signature recipe for every home game, and when the Bruins tasted the sweet victory of the Stanley Cup, she knew that Top Shelf Cookies would be her next goal. Even the name, Top Shelf, is an homage to hockey.

Heather, who has been baking out of CommonWealth Kitchen since 2014, was introduced to the Brewing the American Dream pitch competition. Since participating in the program, she has proudly created specialized, seasonal flavors for the company, including pumpkin beer cookies or Boston Lager chocolate chip cookies.

Heather’s enterprise is growing quickly, and as she’s adjusted to making several hundred cookies in a commercial kitchen rather than just a few dozen at home, CWK has supported her in revitalizing her business plan and marketing strategy, while Accion and Samuel Adams continue to offer support through financial advice and coaching.

CommonWealth Kitchen wholeheartedly supports their fearless and determined clients, and fully understands the challenges unique to opening a food business; CWK is there to encourage entrepreneurs to break through obstacles and realize their aspirations. The collaboration among impressive organizations like CommonWealth Kitchen, Samuel Adams, and Accion is integral to helping women entrepreneurs of color grow and sustain their businesses.

These meaningful opportunities for economic participation and growth empower individuals and communities to create their own futures. Addressing inequalities and financial opportunity, whether in our own neighborhoods or worldwide, is no easy task, but thanks to our important partnerships, Accion can make financial inclusion a reality.

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