Shared commercial kitchens and food incubators are places where would-be restaurateurs can gain the experience they need before opening their own lower-cost operations. A recent addition in Southeastern North Carolina aims to expand these resources.
Block Eatz food hall aims to give local food entrepreneurs the support they need to make the leap to traditional restaurants. It opened Sept. 19 at the McKeithan Center on Cape Fear Community College’s North Campus.
As an incubator, Block Eatz supplies food entrepreneurs with the expensive infrastructure needed to launch a restaurant, including real estate and a fully equipped commercial kitchen. Block Eatz also supports entrepreneurs to sustain and grow their businesses.
“Our mission here is to partner with local food entrepreneurs from idea to commercialization,” said Girard Newkirk, who with his wife Tracy founded Block Eatz as well as Genesis Block, a small business development service center.
They came up with the idea for Block Eatz when they realized that many of the entrepreneurs working with Genesis Block were in the food industry but lacked the capital and sometimes the know-how to open a restaurant.
“Over 40% of our businesses were food,” Girard Newkirk said. “Many of the biggest challenges they faced were related to the infrastructure needed to expand their food business. That first initial investment is a huge capital investment.”
They partnered with CFCC and CFCC’s Small Business Center to provide space for the venture, training and mentoring. The partnership also benefits CFCC culinary students as they have the opportunity to work with professional chefs.
The Block Eatz dining hall is currently home to two restaurants that operate on a rotating basis. Restaurateurs in the program rent space on a short-term basis — about four to five months — and share their profits with Block Eatz.
However, Block Eatz participants go through a rigorous selection and training process before applying to the dining hall. First, they must convince judges and community members that their idea is viable. Those selected for the program then embark on a comprehensive educational program to learn the business and technical skills needed to bring their ideas to life. The crowning point of the program is the real-world experience food entrepreneurs get running their own restaurant.
Ultimately, participants may decide to open their own restaurant or decide to go in a different direction, according to Gerard Newkirk. Either way, they can make an informed decision, he added.
The program is perfect for people like Yanni Lopez, who owns Cultura 311 and Paella Fusion with her husband, and who wants to take her business to the “next level.”
Lopez said having a commercial kitchen is important to her.
“Having a kitchen and not having to worry about where the appliances are going to come from is the most valuable part of the program,” she said. “Buying a grater or a fryer is very expensive. We just have to bring our talent and what we need to make our meals.”
Lopez said the educational components of Block Eatz are essential to her success. She has learned a range of skills that are integral to opening and running a full-service restaurant, including how to track and calculate costs, as well as how to work with distributors, marketing and management.
“I learn a little bit of everything,” she noted. “It helps us a lot.”
Another aspect of the program that Lopez appreciates is the opportunity to collaborate with other business owners. This provides learning opportunities that seminars cannot offer, according to Lopez.
“We’re a team that works together,” Lopez said. “We learn from each other and I like that because we are all entrepreneurs. If we don’t have answers, we brainstorm together and find answers about what’s best for us.”
In the short time that Block Eatz has been open, it has grown steadily. Although business was slow the first week the dining hall was open, it has steadily improved. As the news spread, CFCC students, faculty and even workers from nearby offices stopped by for food.
For Girard Newkirk, the debut of Block Eatz is just the beginning. He hopes to increase the number of food entrepreneurs as well as the number of restaurant spaces on Block Eatz. They also plan to include food distributors, local producers, farmers and others in the food supply chain in the program.
There are also more educational programs on the menu. One option is the curbside delivery option. Another would teach vendors and food companies the ins and outs of the permitting process.
Girard Newkirk has big ambitions for Block Eatz, but that’s because he’s driven to help promising entrepreneurs realize their goals and ambitions.
“I wanted to be a tycoon when I was a kid, but I didn’t have any role models to show me the way,” he said. “My dream has always been to return home and provide an outlet for entrepreneurs. I am uniquely positioned to provide solutions to their problems. I worked in Silicon Valley with some of the best minds in the world. That transfer of knowledge is why I do it.”