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A partnership between the city, Northern Essex Community College and private business has created a successful incubator that helps restaurant entrepreneurs launch local businesses while training them for success.
The Revolving Test Kitchen opened in 2016 on the community college’s campus and already has one “graduate,” Ray Gonzalez’s CocoRay restaurant, which has since opened its own storefront in Lawrence.
Space for the incubator came from Sal Lupoli, owner of the Sal’s Pizza restaurants and the real estate developer behind the Riverwalk mixed-use development, which is renovating historic mill buildings along the south banks of the Merrimack River.
After briefly running a restaurant in the space, Lupoli donated it to the Lawrence Partnership, a public-private economic development coalition whose Board of Directors includes Mayor Dan Rivera, City Council President Kendrys Vasquez, and Planning and Development Director Theresa Park. Lupoli spent $300,000 to outfit the space with equipment and furniture.
Northern Essex Community College agreed to absorb the rent for the space, while Mayor Rivera’s office provided support to make the space operational and recruited Gonzalez, who at that point ran CocoRay’s out of a food truck.
Derek Mitchell, director of the Lawrence Partnership, said the organization wanted to make sure to find someone who would be a good fit as they quickly launched the program. Now, there is a competitive application for tenancy in the kitchen.
“The food is the only thing we don’t provide any support with,” Mitchell said.
The incubator offers technical assistance for entrepreneurs to learn aspects of business management such as inventory, bookkeeping, pricing, marketing, payroll and human resources.
“These are all things that, for the most part, new businesses have no idea about, and it’s hard for them to learn those things,” Mitchell said. “There are some resources out there, but running a business in and of itself is a deep learning curve, and [learning] while trying to make ends meet can be a recipe for failure.”
Tenants are also enrolled in EParaTodos, a Spanish-language small business accelerator that is a subsidiary of the Entrepreneurship for All organization and provides support to local entrepreneurs.
Mitchell said tenants do pay into a $500 monthly rental fee, but it only serves as a security deposit. If they open a business in Lawrence, the fee is returned.