Caterers and canners, individuals and businesses are taking advantage of the culinary incubator at the Spencer-Penn Centre.
The center, at 475 Spencer Penn Road, Spencer, features the only culinary incubator in Southwest Virginia, according to culinaryincubator.com, which has an online database of nearly 300 incubators in the country.
An incubator is a shared kitchen that offers an affordable way for individuals to have access to a large, sanitary, well-equipped cooking space. About 10 clients have used the Spencer-Penn incubator since it opened in October 2010, most of them repeat customers.
“It’s very unique to this area,” said Carrie Denny, executive director of the Spencer-Penn Centre. People from as far as Richmond have contacted the center to ask about renting the incubator, she said.
Denny explained the importance of an incubator to a small business — for example, a hot dog vendor.
“Their business is on a cart,” she said. Their food preparation “has to be done in a certified kitchen, so they do all of their prep-work here.”
Also, Denny said, “We have storage for them, so they can leave their stuff here” and not worry about transporting equipment back and forth.
The incubator is popular among caterers and canners, but many different businesses and individuals have used the facility. According to Denny, one woman even used the kitchen to make gourmet dog treats.
Denny said that roughly 80 percent of the people who rent the incubator use it to prepare items to sell, while the rest rent it for their personal use.
If an individual who rents the kitchen needs assistance or advice, kitchen manager Cathy Vann is there to help.
The incubator is a state-certified commercial kitchen. Vann has been kitchen manager since June and is certified through the ServSafe food handling and kitchen management program.
In that program, Vann said she learned about such topics as proper temperatures for storing hot and cold foods, how long food items can safely be kept at room temperature and how to properly organize a freezer or refrigerator.
“Obviously, you’re not going to put raw chicken above your vegetables,” she said.
As a result of her training and the kitchen’s certification, Vann said, those who rent can focus on cooking without worrying about “jumping through all the health department hoops.”
“I’m always available to help anyone who’s using the kitchen to do that properly,” Vann said.
Vann described herself as a “stickler” for health department rules and regulations due to her years of experience as a kitchen manager at a number of restaurants, including Outback Steakhouse in Richmond, Chili’s in Charlottesville, Market Street Inn in Salisbury, Md., and Castaways in Ocean City, Md.
“I can be here for the event, and I often am,” Vann said, “Or I can meet beforehand and show them around the equipment, show them how to use it.”
The equipment includes a large refrigerator and freezer, a sanitizing dishwasher, multiple microwaves, stainless steel prep counters, a three-compartment sink and a hand sink, a six-burner stove, a regular oven, two convection ovens and a food warming cabinet.
According to Vann, many of the clients who rent the incubator will use it on an occasional basis, renting the kitchen for a couple of days every few weeks to few months. However, “we would certainly allow someone to (rent the incubator) long-term,” she said.
According to Vann, the rates for renting the incubator vary “depending on the event and how much equipment they’re going to use.” It ranges from $10 to $25 per hour.
If someone “just needs counter space, we’re going to charge maybe $10 an hour,” she said. On the other hand, someone who needs to use a great deal of the kitchen equipment more likely would be charged $25 per hour, largely to cover the cost of the electricity to power the equipment.
Renting the incubator has been a uniformly positive experience, Vann said.
“We haven’t had any problems,” she said. “Everyone has been respectful of the equipment .... We’ve been very pleased. We have very good clientele.”
For more information about the incubator, contact the Spencer-Penn Centre at 957-5757.