Ben DeVries, CEO of the Treasure Coast RDA, and Florida Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam

Ben DeVries, CEO of the Treasure Coast RDA, and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam /Courtesy photo.

Ben DeVries is building an enormous incubator – the size of a commercial kitchen.

It will be around 10,000 square feet, but it’s not meant for reincarnating dinosaur eggs. Rather, this one will be built for what’s growing in the 21st century: agricultural and food production-related businesses. And it will be stocked with the catalysts needed to birth new enterprises that could give Florida’s economy a big boost.

It’s known as the Sunshine Kitchen Food Business Incubator and will be built in Fort Pierce, where DeVries, CEO of the Treasure Coast Education and Research Development Authority (RDA), is based.

Years in planning

He’s sought for years to finance and build a licensed commercial kitchen with professional equipment coupled with a research lab designed to help entrepreneurs create food-production ventures.

This spring, the RDA accepted an $895,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, along with a St. Lucie County match of $896,735 to help make it a reality. A request for $2 million from the state has not yet been fulfilled, but whether that comes, DeVries has enough to get started.

He estimates that it will take six months to get the project out to bid for design work and hire a construction contractor. “We hope to have construction starting in the second or third quarter of next year, and then hopefully it’ll take maybe another year before it’s open,” DeVries said.

“The project will be managed through the St. Lucie County Purchasing Department, so it will be out to bid.” Anyone interested in being a contractor should go through that department,” he said. The county made the incubator one of its 2015 priorities.

According to the building plans, a 9,781-square-feet shared kitchen will be built, costing an estimated $2.5 million for the building shell, interior design and construction. The facility is to include both wet and dry areas for food preparation, a processing facility, training and office space, plus a gallery and reception area for tasting and product showcases.

“It’s really going to be two pieces: what we call a kitchen incubator, which is for people who cook and process food – it’ll be a fully licensed facility with all the equipment and tools necessary for anyone who wants to start a business to go in there and use it under a shared basis. The other piece will be that it would provide processing, which is packaging, labeling, so that people can take their cottage industry ideas and make them into commercially viable enterprises,” DeVries explained.

A kitchen such as this one is envisioned in the plan for the incubator/lab space. /Courtesy photo.

A fully equipped commerical kitchen such as this is envisioned in the plan for the incubator/lab space. /Courtesy photo.

Colleges and universities tapped

The Sunshine Kitchen will provide not only physical tools. The RDA has worked to establish relationships with many local educational institutions to provide training for participants. In many cases, those people might be students anyway, but DeVries said the incubator’s facilities will be available to anyone.

“We’re engaged with the USDA, the University of Florida, Indian River State College, Virginia College, Keiser University, Florida Atlantic – all the colleges are going to be engaged with the folks that are on the input side and on the product development side, as well as the entrepreneurs in these different educational institutions. And then we’re going to engage the students. We’re going to be working with the culinary programs at the regional level, at the high school level.

“We’re also going to have regular programs where we go out to the community and we have work sessions, either through UF Extension or maybe the colleges.”

Other food research facilities neighbors

The Sunshine Kitchen will be among many partners on the research park’s campus. The USDA’s 170,000-square-foot Horticultural Research Laboratory and the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ 90,000-square-foot Research and Education Center are its neighbors.

He said the kitchen’s mission is all about value-added crops.

“We want to find the growers and … provide them with the small-business opportunities and even maybe larger business opportunities of creating value-added products, selling them in the local market; to get them to ramp up the consumer education to get people buying those products; and to expand local job opportunities,” DeVries explained.

“This is all about economic development, job creation. So the great opportunity here – and we see this as a bridge between the grower community and the consumer community – is to the region. I’m the CEO, so this is my job: I make this happen and make sure it’s a success.

“We’ve put a lot of planning and a lot of effort into it, and we’re confident this will be a real benefit and service to the region.”