Providing a crucial link for early-stage food processors, a commercial kitchen incubator at The Grove is helping to foster food entrepreneurship
Photo: James Smith, director of agri-food and The Grove at Western Fair District
IN 2018, THE Progress Building at the Western Fair grounds seemed to be counting its days. Gateway Casinos was pitching plans for a massive redevelopment of the fairgrounds that would see many of the buildings, including the Progress Building, torn down.
But by the end the year those plans were abandoned — and the Western Fair District board of directors had to decide on its next move.
Its answer was to lean into what they were known for. “Western Fair decided to rethink their strategy, go back to their roots from 150 years ago and really look at agriculture as the strategy we should be focusing on,” says James Smith, director of The Grove. “London is very much supported by agriculture, and we were thinking, ‘What could we do with this building?’”
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The marquee announcement was The Grove at Western Fair District, an agri-food accelerator that Western Fair District president Reg Ash envisioned “bringing new agriculture and food businesses, products and technologies to market.”
The idea for an agri-food accelerator had been around for a few years, Smith says, and the decision to not demolish the Progress Building created the opening.
In early 2021, as more public investment was being directed towards the agri-food sector, The Grove received a five-year, $7.2-million investment from FedDev Ontario, with a target of accelerating 20 companies over the five years.
“The project, from a federal development point of view, is to create prosperity in the community — it’s to create jobs,” Smith says.
Around $5 million of the funds went into building The Grove’s facilities to industry standards, Smith says, including installing specialized equipment for liquid batch cooking, commercial baking and tools for protein production. With that in place, The Grove was able to bring its full vision to life: an accelerator program supported by a startup-focused incubator kitchen.
Launched in 2022, the incubator side of The Grove offers a commercial kitchen geared for early-stage food startups. It’s meant to serve as a low-cost kitchen that can be rented daily or weekly by startups needing access to production equipment, as well as a bridge into the accelerator network for companies just starting to get on their feet.
James Smith with Allison McKillop and Jesse Long of The Hot Sauce Co.
“The Grove is an accelerator, but it also needs to have the feeder to support the people who are in basements, small kitchens and are ready to do something at a larger scale,” Smith says.
“It was designed to help people get to the next level, and then rally around them and give them support and connections to services,” he continues. “It’s a daily rental, it’s relatively affordable and you can do large quantities.”
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The aim is to have startup food processors use the resource as a launching pad. “We help these companies to incubate, grow, expand their offerings and get to a point where they are hopefully ready to move on into their own space and dictate a different level of growth,” Smith says, adding the five food processing startups have so far accelerated out of space.
One of the companies that has been making use of the space is The Hot Sauce Co., founded by Jesse Long. He’s been utilizing some of The Grove’s services since 2020, but it wasn’t until this year that he began moving his production into the incubator kitchen.
“For a business our size — one which wants to keep production in-house and never with a co-packer — where we have 150-plus retailers to supply, it was perfect,” Long says. “In just a week’s time we were able to produce enough product to supply our vendors and customers for the next couple months, which leaves us with more time to work on our business rather than every other day in the kitchen.”
Long says there’s no question that he’ll keep using the space until the business is big enough to invest in its own production equipment.
That’s the model Smith and The Grove were hoping to create: a space that is flexible and accessible to small producers who might otherwise be limited to small and less efficient facilities. “We looked at it holistically — what’s the next level?” Smith explains. “What would be a barrier for somebody going from the incubator phase, where they’re making maybe 500 to 1,000 units of something; how do we get them to 2,000 to 5,000?”
What Smith didn’t necessarily expect was how quickly a community of entrepreneurs would form within The Grove’s walls. “We’re building community,” he says, “and that is sometimes what you [entrepreneurs] need most — someone to bounce an idea off. And I’m finding that’s what we’ve created without really envisioning it when we launched.”
With a couple years left of its funding agreement with the feds, Smith says they are now starting to have discussions about what the future looks like. “We’ve also, from a business point of view, tried to make sure the model is self-supporting,” he says. “If it’s all going well, it should continue to fund itself.”
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What The Grove — and government funders, local economic development groups, potential investors and existing food processing startups — all hope to see going forward is that those in the food industry keep making use of this resource, to maintain a steady stream of experimentation, creativity and growth.