Nebraska City hopes to revive frontier days dreaming that supported the town's early food and canning industries.
Nebraska City ought start with the premise of re-establishing itself as the nation's favored kitchen, canning and brewing headquarters and let professional business consultants pare down the possibilities from there, said Tim Pendrell of Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce.
He asked city commissioners Dec. 2 to approve a direct grant from the LB840 economic development fund to hire a consultant that will develop a business plan for a "culinary incubator."
It would allow residents and businesses to rent a fully equipped and health-licensed kitchen and perhaps a distillery for cooking, canning and other culinary purposes.
Pendrell's goal is to use the current farm-to-market and artisan food trends to spark further economic development.
"In a city that already is a weekend destination with agriculture- and environmental-centric events and attractions, the culinary incubator would broaden its appeal, reaching foodies and others across the entire Midwest," he said.
“Nebraska City has always been at the forefront of the local, sustainable food trend, long before it was trendy,” he said. “J. Morton Sterling first proposed the tree-promoting holiday at a meeting of Nebraska’s State Board of Agriculture. He was a pioneer in educating the public on the value of trees, not just for their beauty but also for their roles as a food source and windbreaks.”
Incubators work because it sometimes makes economic sense for producers to rent a kitchen rather than undertake the expense to building their own and then keeping it up to date.
Pendrell said there are also a number of home gardeners with special recipes to package.
"We want that jarring and canning facility. If someone with a salsa recipe is being kept out of something like the farmers market because of packaging, we can say you can do it," he said.
“Activities like canning and cooking from scratch with unprocessed foods are now gaining favor by society once again as we seek ways to reconnect with our food sources and one another,” Pendrell said.
“Nebraska City, with its orchards and Arbor Day attractions and events, is a prime position to capture this popular fascination, and the culinary incubator is the mechanism to do it,” he said.
A culinary incubator is a kitchen facility that has the proper licenses and inspections to prepare and process foods for sale to the public but on a smaller scale than today’s mass production plants. Many incubators act as friendly places for start-ups, allowing home cooks or entrepreneurs the ability to test their wares on the market before investing in a full-scale operation, or they provide already established small businesses the environment and resources to grow to the next level.
The city is being asked for $11,250 to help NCTC hire a consultant to analyze the trade area and conduct site evaluations.
Pendrell said underused buildings, such as the Memorial Building, former Morton House Kitchens complex or vacated hospital, will be considered.
Parks Commissioner Jeff Crunk noted that of the three buildings, two are not owned by the city. He said Nebraska City citizens voted earlier not to put $1 into the Memorial Building.
Pendrell said the consultant will evaluate available locations and might find a use for an existing building or recommend a new facility.
Finance Commissioner Mark Mercer said finding a use for the Memorial Building that will use private dollars for rehabilitation would save the city the cost of demolishing the building later.
Pendrell said the business and marketing plans may determine that only a small space is needed, but said there is also a possibility that a market exists to support use all of the available spaces in the city.
Pendrell said a workable business plan for a culinary incubator could provide an easy restoration answer for places like the Memorial Building.
He said restoration costs in the millions of dollars sound like a lot, unless you are able to run a business there than brings in a half million a year. When there's the promise of an income, the costs to repair a building are more palatable, he said.
Pendrell said he was troubled by the vacancy of the Memorial Building even before taking the job as NCTC director in July, but the idea for the culinary incubator took a life of its own.
He had been in town only a few weeks, when Stephanie Shrader of Nebraska City Area Economic Development introduced him to Jerry Hoffman, a business consultant from Lincoln visiting Nebraska City.
Pendrell explained that he was new to town, but would pass Hoffman's name along to local businesses.
While giving a tour, Pendrell said he happened to mention that the Memorial Building has a kitchen in the basement and shared his idea for a commercial kitchen.
Hoffman put Pendrell in contact with Debbie and Jerry Downings, proprietors of a kitchen in Colorado Springs.
They established a kitchen that uses locally-grown foods for retail sales at the "Gotta Love It Market." They also allow customers to produce items with their own recipes.
In the past 2.5 years, the company has launched 13 individual businesses.
Pendrell said he is encouraged by the Downings' success to think that Nebraska City can revive business entrepreneurship that dates back to its frontier days.
Hoffman, chief executive officer of Hoffman Strategy Group, was the project coordinator for the Annenberg Rural Challenge at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
He has worked on new retailer and hospitality analysis for Pittsburg, Kan., a new store locator for a national health and beauty franchise and a trade area analysis and sales forecasting for the antique markets.