May 1, 2012

New manager turns up heat on kitchen incubator

Entrepreneurs with dreams of success in the food industry will have a home in West Memphis when Delta Cuisine: A Southern Kitchen Incubator opens for business early next year.

With the initial phase of fund raising nearly complete, newly hired project manager John Auker is firing up the stove on the project with an eye to being up and running by spring of 2013.

The $1.8 million project is the result of the combined efforts of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative and The City of West Memphis in collaboration with a handful of other partners. The incubator’s early proponents were Beth Wiedower, director of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, and Main Street West Memphis Director Leigh Ann Hastings.

The project has been a priority since 2008, when a feasibility study conducted by graduate students from the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service indicated that such a facility has a “high likelihood of success.”

The project moved into high gear late last year when the Clarksdale, Miss.-based Delta Regional Authority awarded a $400,000 grant for the initiative. Other funding includes investments from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, plus significant contributions from the City of West Memphis and Mid-South Community College.

In addition to providing the 6,400-square-foot building located near its administration offices that will eventually house Delta Cuisine, Auker is also an MSCC staff member. The incubator project, he says, is a logical complement to the community college’s focus on creating a highly skilled, adaptable workforce in the Arkansas Delta and the Mid-South region.

“There are a few similar facilities that exist around the country,” Auker said. “But this will be the first of its kind in the Mid-South.”

Delta Cuisine will provide commercial-grade space and equipment for prepping, cooking, canning and baking for culinary and food-based businesses from across the Mid-South. On-site consultants—from partners such as Winrock International, Arkansas State University’s Delta Center for Economic Development and—will provide business and technical training.

“We’ll assist them in commercializing their idea,” Auker said. “And we’ll help them figure out what they need to do to be in compliance with local laws.”

Auker, originally from St. Louis, has a degree in regional and urban planning from the University of Illinois and a MBA in Marketing from Southern Illinois University. He grew up working in his family’s restaurant and has worked in the food industry for most of his career, including stints at Kraft Foods and Ventura Foods.

He was working at in Memphis when Wiedower and Hastings asked him if he knew of someone who might be interested in running the incubator project.

“I said, ‘Yeah. I would,’” Auker says. “During my years at alt.Consulting, I worked on many food-related projects. I have a natural affinity for this kind of work. And I love being in the food industry. I can’t wait to get this thing open.”

To learn more about Delta Cuisine, email John Auker or call him at 870-735-5625.