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Congresswoman visits kitchen incubator

STERLING – Congresswoman Cheri Bustos walked out of the Kitchen Incubator of Northwest Illinois with at least a dozen tamales.

Bustos, D-East Moline, whose district includes Whiteside County, toured the home of Mark’s Best tamales and a handful of other local businesses Monday afternoon.

“I know the challenge of anybody in the food business is overhead,” she said. “This takes some of the risk out of starting a food business.”

The kitchen incubator, in the Sterling Small Business and Technology Center, also known as the “small business incubator,” at 1741 Industrial Drive off LeFevre Road, opened in May 2012.

The incubator gives entrepreneurs and small business owners a low-cost place to get on their feet before moving to their own facilities. They have access not only to a commercial kitchen, but also to training, advice and other resources.

The 3,000 square feet of commercial kitchen space includes a walk-in refrigerator, walk-in freezer, a 10-burner gas range with double oven, a steam kettle, a tiltable skillet, a rotating rack oven, a convection oven, a 140-quart stand mixer and more.

The incubator has space enough for as many as three businesses to run – stressfully, but functionally – at once.

The services offered include safe food handling classes, marketing advice and collaboration with local food professionals and small business owners.

“It really does answer that question ... of the initial startup and costs,” Bustos said.

Krista Morthland, director of the kitchen incubator, and Heather Sotelo, executive director of the Greater Sterling Development Corp., regaled the congresswoman with stories of the businesses that have found success through the incubator.

The women spoke of Mark’s Best, as well as relative newcomers Rico’s Gourmet Salsas and Cakes Done Wright. They also spoke of the strides the incubator is taking to attract new clients, such as farmers, who could stand to benefit more from selling a value-added product such as canned heirloom tomatoes or salsa, rather than from selling their produce.

“They’re all success stories,” Morthland said.

“As a health inspector [for Whiteside County], I was forever telling people, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that,’” she continued. “But then I heard about this concept ... and I was so excited about it, I told them [the Greater Sterling Development Corp.] that I wanted to work here ... so I could tell people, ‘You can do that here.’”

Morthland and Sotelo also noted that theirs is the only kitchen incubator of its kind in the region: The nearest incubators are in Galesburg and Mineral Point, Wis., but they are geared only toward baking and canning and drying, respectively.

Bustos, who had never heard of a kitchen incubator, let alone seen one, was impressed.

“I love to learn about innovative business practices,” she said. “Whenever I come home ... I take away from these visits information ... so if I later meet someone who is interested in this line of work, I can send them this way.”

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