By Amanda Burke
LUNENBURG — A chrome convection oven sits beside a 20-gallon steam cooker, to its left is a flat-top grill scoured clean of any traces of grease inside the Commercial Kitchen Incubator in Shrewsbury, a space shared by more than a dozen producers who take turns using the space to make handmade dishes, many using local produce, sold by these small-business owners.
The kitchen, said manager Neil Rogers, fills a need for a commercial space that meets state and local health regulations. It also provides upstart producers access to pricey equipment.
“It’s thousands and thousands of dollars, depending on what you want to put in,” he said, eying the mixer, canning machine, industrial dishwasher and other assorted supplies at the kitchen that shares a building with the Worcester Regional Food Pantry.
The incubator helps support sustainable, local food-supply chains by giving small-scale farmers and food producers a space to make items like hot sauce, whoopie pies, and spring rolls.
About a 40-minute drive away, farmers in Lunenburg, a right-to-farm community settled 80 years before Massachusetts became a commonwealth, have identified a need for a similar venture.
“There’s food that goes to waste,” said Heather Bowen, a business owner who runs H&M Farm with her husband, Planning Board Vice Chair Matthew Allison.
Bowen describes herself as a passionate cook who lives in Lunenburg and runs a bed-and-breakfast in Westminster.
While living elsewhere, she used to prepare and sell healthy meals to customers with certain dietary requirements. Local Board of Health regulations state she can’t do that in a home kitchen.
“It’s the local farmers, or maybe it’s the farmer’s neighbor who says, ‘I can make the best canned beets in the world,’ but if I don’t have a commercial kitchen I can’t do that.”
Having such a kitchen, she said, would be a boon for the town’s economic development.
“There are so many farms in Lunenburg. There are so many opportunities for local food to be turned into things we don’t just eat during the growing season, but we can’t do that and sell them without a commercial kitchen,” said Bowen.
Here, some involved in the Lunenburg’s vibrant agricultural sector have identified a need for a commercial kitchen like the one Rogers supervises in Shrewsbury.
The town was home to 18 full-time farmers at last count, but countless more residents raise animals and crops on their land, said Agricultural Commission Chairman Jeffrey Mendoza.
Mendoza rents his land to several farmers who have told him their own kitchens aren’t suited for producing goods from their produce that they can sell after the harvest.
“If there was a collective, a community kitchen that was available so that all farmers could have access to it I think it would be a total benefit,” he said.
Not having to purchase their own equipment and instead rent space would help reduce the cost of entry into the multibillion-dollar specialty food industry.
“Selling specialty farm products, there’s a lot of money to be made, but a lot of farmers are young and margins are pretty tight,” he said.
Talk in the town, Mendoza said, has pointed to the TC Passios School as a potential solution for some farmers and artisans who desire a commercial-grade kitchen.
Selectmen voted to pursue the former elementary school as the new location for town offices.
Currently, the superintendent of schools and her staff work at the Passios, home to a full commercial kitchen that Selectmen Chair Jamie Toale said could be a prime location for to help answer the calls of local farmers.
“It’s a full commercial kitchen now,” he said. “Instead of tearing it down it could be used by either the town or a commercial-kitchen private enterprise to prepare food for the public.”
Increased interest in self-employment by heading a small business and the ever-popular food truck shared kitchens are becoming more common across the state, said Rogers of the Food Incubator.
“There’s a huge push for that right now,” he said. “Because I think more people are trying to have the entrepreneurial spirit of starting their own business and I know a few years ago there was only Commonwealth Kitchen” and another in Western Massachusetts. “And now they’re popping up everywhere.”
The Food Incubator kitchen is the result of a partnership between the Regional Environmental Council and Worcester County Chamber of Commerce.
Among its patrons are World Farmers, a Lancaster-based nonprofit that supports part-time farmers of mostly immigrant and refugee backgrounds with land, and training to farm produce popular in their native countries.
Marie Merrera, executive director of World Farmers, said her commercial kitchen is readying to open.
“It’s always been a nagging need. It just takes a lot of funding,” said Merrera.
World Farmers in September won a state grant totaling nearly $125,000 through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Food Ventures program.
Lunenburg, with the benefit of having a town-owned property already equipped with kitchen equipment not currently in use, could develop that space into a hub for community to come together.
A general store inside the Passios, stocked with goods cooked in its commercial kitchen, is a beautiful idea to people such as Joslin Schneider, who owns of Dragonfly Cafe at Town Center.
“People coming together, doing something wholesome and sharing the town together, I think that’s important,” she said.