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San Antonio Food Incubator Stirs Up New Culinary Businesses

Tracie Shelton is bringing business mentorship and healthier eats to her Alamo City neighborhood.

Tracie Shelton is the founding force behind Alamo Kitchens, a culinary co-working space in San Antonio, Texas. Shelton was already motivated to help other businesses succeed in her role as a business coach. But she saw they had needs that were not being filled, and she also had a desire to influence more healthy options in her community. 

While food incubators often serve the space needs of a business, not every commissary-style effort offers any resources beyond that. In fact, some even have a fee structure that could be deemed predatory for fledgling food concepts, which are also often minority-owned businesses. Startup costs comprise the bulk of a new business budget and excess fees tend to negate the savings of a shared kitchen concept. Approaching food incubators with a service mentality is an empowering approach. 

Shelton began her endeavor from the mentoring side — she views it as an expansion of her original work as a business coach. "I visited with lots of different businesses, helping them start, pivot, and grow,” she says. I saw that many of my food-related businesses were struggling to grow because they did not have a licensed space to prepare their products. This was a problem I knew I could solve. And, one that tied closely with a desire of my heart." 

One of her more pressing desires was to foster better food and health in her neighborhood. This was a deeply motivated goal due to her experience with family health. She saw a clear path to that goal with Alamo Kitchens. 

"My youngest son was born with several health concerns," Shelton says. "We learned that they were manifested, in part, based on the food he consumed. As I took care of my son, I learned that food is medicine. I wanted to share that learning with other young people and their families.  The kitchen became a space for me to help educate people about food and how it can be used to heal."

But Shelton's vision has the benefit of advanced structure and planning. The Break Fast and Launch program is a culinary business accelerator by Launch SA, an entrepreneurship center partnership between the City of San Antonio's Economic Development Department and LiftFund, one of the largest microfinance nonprofits in the country. The program was instrumental in launching Alamo Kitchens in 2018. They've worked with over 115 businesses in the program since 2015.

"I had worked on my business plan,” Shelton says. “It was not until the Break Fast and Launch program that I felt like I had all the tools necessary to actually launch the business." 

Shelton was also a recipient of a LiftFund loan, in partnership with the City of San Antonio. The loan structure helps build more credit history for business owners. She was also a winner in the 2018 Venture Challenge, a Launch SA competition.

“LiftFund supports hard-working small business owners, like Tracie Shelton, to access the funding and resources they need to launch and grow their businesses," says Alma Valdez Brown, small business development officer at LiftFund. 

The role of community stakeholders, funders, developers and civic leaders is not to be underestimated in sustainably building thriving small businesses. Shelton says the biggest indicator of success for Alamo Kitchen is the growth of her clients’ businesses. 

"The biggest thing everyone can do is show up!” she says. “And ‘show up’ means different things depending on the type of business and their current needs... referring them to a client, helping them partner on a contract, purchasing from them, helping secure funds and being a mentor.”

This article is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.