The state of food businesses in the Gem City
By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Synergy Incubator Co-Founder/Board Chair Tonia Fish (left) with the area’s chefs at the Edible Science event from this past November
The state of Dayton’s food businesses has been a hot topic recently. The impetus for this heated debate stems from the city of Dayton’s decision not to extend a long-term lease to Synergy Incubators in their 200 S. Jefferson St. location. The complicated conversation involves food trucks, brick-and-mortar businesses, the city of Dayton, the Downtown Dayton Partnership and, most importantly, Synergy Incubators. To understand the context around this discussion, some background is in order.
What is Synergy Incubators? Put simply, Synergy is a communal kitchen with the goal of facilitating Dayton’s small, but growing, food businesses. When the economy tanked in 2008, many Miami Valley residents turned entrepreneurial, starting food businesses including bakeries, catering companies, companies that produce prepared items like sauces and salsas, and food trucks. Unfortunately, the food industry has a high cost of entry. In addition to the specialized equipment needed to produce goods, food businesses must operate within a commercially-certified kitchen to ensure compliance with food safety standards. This requirement can often be cost-prohibitive.
Tonia Fish, co-founder of Synergy Incubators and chair of its board, explained how Synergy seeks to meet this challenge: “What Synergy Incubators does is provide affordable kitchen space to new and growing food businesses. There is a critical shortage of affordable kitchen space, truly critical, so as soon as we came out with our concept, we were literally deluged by people who were searching high and low for affordable kitchen space to either start or grow their kitchen businesses. The issue there is what it costs to maintain a commercially licensed kitchen, as compared to what a user can pay to be in the space, is not the same.”
Synergy also holds educational workshops to help entrepreneurs start and grow their food business. Offering low-cost workshops and affordable kitchen space requires capital, so the non-profit organization built several for-profit revenue streams into its business model to support its mission. These for-profit ventures included providing rentable banquet space to brick-and-mortars that seek additional capacity for special events. They also included leasing parking spaces to food trucks for their monthly rallies.
This second venture inadvertently touched a third rail. Synergy recognized it shared a common interest with the growing number of food trucks in the greater Dayton area and began working with them, serving as a mentor as the trucks organized themselves into a professional association. Leasing space for the food truck rallies helped raise awareness of the mobile businesses, and also brought in much-needed capital to support Synergy’s mission.
Unfortunately, the regulations surrounding food trucks are murky. This ambiguity raised concern with some of the area’s established businesses. The city heard murmurs of these concerns, which became mixed into the evaluation as to whether to extend a long-term lease to Synergy. According to Joe Parlette, director of the City of Dayton’s Recreation and Youth Services, under whose purview the Jefferson Street location falls, the City of Dayton reached out to the Downtown Dayton Partnership to gauge the community’s reaction.
The Downtown Dayton Partnership is a not-for-profit that works on behalf of downtown property owners and businesses. Sandy Gudorf, the group’s president, noted the following unease about the food truck rallies: “Some of the concerns we had were the notion [the brick-and-mortars] have a permanent investment. They are here 24/7, every day, through good and bad, and food trucks are present only at peak times and everybody is competing for the same dollars.” Gudorf added, “There were concerns about lack of parking and cleanup.” However, Gudorf is quick to point out, “[a]lmost everybody supports Synergy, the concept of a community kitchen, an incubator.”
There appears to be consensus Synergy is good for the community, with brick-and-mortars actively donating their time, resources and voices in support of the non-profit. Yet, the concern about the food trucks seems to trump the support of the organization itself. So why was the long-term lease not offered? When asked what part food trucks played in the city’s decision, Parlette was vague in his response: “There are a number of aspects that are a result of the full evaluation of the entire picture, and that’s probably one of them. The primary being the full scope of this business in this space at this time we don’t believe is the best option for this space.” While Synergy submitted several proposals, Parlette noted the city was unable to give Synergy a “golden formula” that would meet the city’s goals for the location.
So, where does that leave us? Synergy wants to stay downtown and is actively exploring other options. The city plans to reevaluate the 200 S. Jefferson St. location to determine what sort of operation it would like to see there. Finally, a dialogue is starting to take place regarding how food trucks fit into the overall city scheme, a conversation that is overdue, but will hopefully result in some common sense regulations that allow all food operations to contribute to the vibrancy of downtown Dayton.
Want to add your voice to this conversation?
Stay up-to-date on Synergy Incubators at synergyincubators.com
Contact the Downtown Dayton Partnership via their website to let them know how you would like to see the city evolve: downtowndayton.org.
Follow the Miami Valley Mobile Food Association on Facebook to stay current on food-truck related issues.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.