ALTON — The city is set to embark on a new program that could help low-income individuals learn to work in the food industry and manage small businesses while helping produce local jobs.
Brought to the city for consideration just two weeks ago, Alton is ready to fully support the idea.
The culinary business incubator (CBI), a relatively new concept, is being modeled after a similar project started last year in San Antonio called “Bake, Broil and Brew.” If approved, Alton’s Culinary Business Incubator would be the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley.
Alton Assistant City Manager Steve Peña said the city is working with the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), the City of Alton Development Corporation (CADC), the Rio Grande Valley Empowerment Zone (RGVEZ) and Texas A&M on the project, which would teach people how to bake goods for sale, do catering and teach healthy cooking techniques. It would also teach them the bookkeeping skills they need to run a small business.
Peña said the project could create up to 40 jobs in the Alton area, including the teachers, the students and maintenance personnel.
“Anyone could have a great idea but not know how to put it into action. The people in the program would learn the skills needed to make their culinary project and at the same time learn cooking techniques, such as making a healthier tamale, or some other specialty so it could become a livelihood for that person,” said Peña. “It would also teach people who simply want to work in the food services industry the skills they need to get jobs.”
Peña said the city had approved the use of the southern 6,000 square feet of the current industrial building across from the Alton City Hall complex. The project is estimated to cost $800,000, which could be funded by grants. The CADC was putting the concept on the fast tract with the pre-application estimated to take a couple of months.
Peña said it might take as long as December or January to see if the project would get funded. If the project is funded, Alton will be responsible for the build-out of the facility, which includes construction of walls, and placement of electrical wiring and plumbing to set up the kitchen.
Peña said the plans for the CBI in the city’s industrial warehouse wouldn’t impact the city’s plans to create a digital library in the building. With only 6,000 square feet of the available 25,000 square feet being used for the culinary project, there would still be close to 15,000 square feet not taken up by existing offices and storage space that could house the planned digital library.
Michael Uhrbrock, associate director for economic development at UTPA, said if the project were funded, the venture could be used for a variety of things. In addition to learning skills, future entrepreneurs could actually rent spaces in the industrial warehouse to create their own food business that could create products that could be sold commercially to places like H-E-B or local restaurants.
The grant is geared toward increasing access to healthy foods in areas considered “food deserts” by the government, Uhrbrock explained. A “food desert” is an area the government believes doesn’t have access to affordable and nutritious foods. These areas are designated based on distance from food sources.
Uhrbrock said 20 projects throughout the United States would be funded, so the RGVEZ would be competing nationwide to get the funds.
“While funding is not yet a done deal, we are hopeful the project will be funded,” he said.
If funded, UTPA would provide the on-site management while Alton provides the building and does the needed renovations to install the kitchens and café. The CADC would provide the money for the build-out and the RGVEZ would act as fiscal agent for the government and set up accounts for restaurants and manage loans. Texas A&M already has a community garden which could be expanded to provide fresh produce and herbs for the project.
“Normally incubators are created to generate small businesses,” said Dalia Rodriguez, chief executive officer for RGVEZ. “Many small businessmen do not have the management skills, such as bookkeeping, needed to run a business or do marketing of their products. They also may not have the required (commercial kitchen) equipment to get them where they need to be.”
While also concentrating on healthy food options, Rodriguez said a special project plant expert at UTPA would help determine which locally grown plants could be incorporated into the foods to provide people with a healthier diet.
“Diabetes is also prevalent in our area so including sugar-free foods for diabetes is important,” she explained. “Small things, such as substitution of olive oil for lard, can make a big difference in people’s diets.”
Several years ago, Rodriguez visited dislocated workers from the El Paso Hagar clothing factory who were running a daycare and had created a restaurant and café. The workers were being taught customer service, commercial cooking techniques, how to prep meals, and procurement for meats and fresh produce. Their success could be mirrored here, she said.
“If the Alton project works out, the people who are trained there could cater to the government for special functions or for local businesses,” Rodriguez said. “We want to take the concept further by teaching business skills. Then, hopefully at the end of the project, we will be able to establish a loan fund to help them buy pots and pans and permits they need to get started.”
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