The plan to build a business incubator for restaurateurs, caterers and other food-related businesses on a vacant lot south of the Kedzie/Lake Green Line ‘L’ station cleared its first legal hurdle on Nov. 29 at a city zoning committee meeting, where a potential community benefits agreement for the project was discussed.

The Hatchery is a joint project by the nonprofit Accion Chicago and the Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago. Once built, it would have kitchens of various sizes, as well as communal kitchens. As Mary Fran Riley, Accion’s senior vice president of external affairs, explained to this newspaper, this would allow entrepreneurs to launch their businesses while saving on start-up costs by taking advantage of the Hatchery’s equipment.

In order to get the project off the ground, the lot would need to be rezoned to C1-3 Commercial and Manufacturing District. The application cleared the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, and it is expected to go before the full council later this month. But even then, the officials involved cautioned that the project is still in very early stages, and something may derail it. Even if everything goes smoothly, they won’t break ground until spring 2017 at the earliest, and the project isn’t expected to open until sometime in 2018.

ICNC works to encourage business along the Kidzie Industrial Corridor, a transitionally industrial area near what are now known as the Union Pacific West Line tracks. Among other services, it runs a business incubator where aspiring entrepreneurs can rent out space and get access to resources that would help them get their vision off the ground.

Accion is a Boston-based organization that lends money to small businesses and, like ICNC, helps to get them off the ground. As Riley explained, ICNC’s business incubator wasn’t well-suited for food-related businesses, so they wanted to build something else.  Meanwhile, Accion Chicago learned from experience that one of the biggest issues facing food-related start-ups is access to kitchens that meet municipal codes.

“In order to meet all the code requirements, you need to have hood over the stove, walls need to be sealed, floors need to be sealed,” Riley said. “So it’s often too expensive for entrepreneurs to borrow enough money to build out a kitchen.”

Her organization did a feasibility study that determined that having a business incubator that would have such facilities would remove that barrier. And since ICNC was already looking for something like this, it made sense for the two organizations to team up and create the Hatchery together.

According to the application documents, they are looking to build on a mostly vacant lot between Lake Street, Albany Avenue, Randolph Street, Maypole Avenue and Kedzie Street. Garfield Park Community Council currently uses the west part of the lot as a community farmers market.

 Angela Taylor, GPCC’s Wellness Coordinator, who, among other things, runs the market, said ICNC and Accion approached her organization about a year ago and invited it to be their community partner.

Both Riley and Taylor repeatedly emphasized to Austin Weekly News that the project is still in the early stages, and many details haven’t been finalized yet. But Riley did touch on the basic concept. It would have kitchens for individual tenants and shared kitchens. The individual kitchens will come in different sizes and tenants will be able to choose whichever size suits their particular needs.

“We hope they will continue to grow the business, and they’ll find a location and another person will come in [to the Hatchery],” Riley said.

The Hatchery’s official website also mentions food storage facilities and meeting spaces. Riley also said that Accion Chicago is planning to move its own offices, which are currently located downtown, into the new building.

During the Nov. 29 Zoning Committee meeting, Mike Tomas, CPCC’s Executive Director, told the aldermen that they are working on a community benefit agreement with the organizations behind the Hatchery. Among things they are hoping to get is the year-round space for the community market, training programs for local entrepreneurs and a community advisory board.

Riley told the Weekly that they are already working to provide job opportunities for locals.

“We already providing training for residents in food handling, so when the Hatchery is open, they are ready to take jobs at the Hatchery,” she said.

Accion Chicago is currently working to raise money to get the project off the ground and they are reaching out to potential tenants. Since June 2016, they have been holding a series of workshops dealing with various aspects of creating a successful food and beverage business, including advertising, accounting, networking and legal requirements. While there aren’t any workshops currently scheduled for December, Riley insisted that more would be scheduled in the future.

Both she and Taylor said that there would be community outreach as the project gets closer to groundbreaking.

“We want to make sure we do this right, and that [the East Garfield Park] community is engaged is close as possible,” Riley said.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...