By supporting the growth of small businesses and driving economic development in Cottage Grove, the work of Bohemia Food Hub aligns with our 2021-2025 Community Health Improvement Plan’s priority to ensure incomes are sufficient to meet the basic costs of living.
Founded in 2016, Bohemia Food Hub supports the growth and development of new and existing businesses in the Food and Beverage Sector in Cottage Grove.
The hub includes a 3,500 square foot co-working commercial kitchen, a developed Food Truck court, and a retail grocery store. The hub offers built-in support for entrepreneurs as they navigate the business start-up and scaling process including training and mentoring, business support, and business scholarships. The organization has supported the creation and success of more than 15 companies, employing nearly 40 community members.
Bohemia Food Hub also participated in the 2020 Local Food, Local Places Report which worked to identify goals and action items to create a community action plan for Cottage Grove’s food systems through technical assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
We sat down with Bohemia Food Hub’s founder, Kim Johnson, and their current AmeriCorps RARE member, Ayesha Talreja, to discuss their work and role in economic development and food systems in rural South Lane County.
How did Bohemia Food Hub get started?
Kim: It was mostly born out of a need for affordable space to conduct business, and for a commercial kitchen and retail space. It started with me, as a food manufacturer, needing affordable space to conduct my business. I found this very challenging to find, until I was able to acquire this building for a low enough amount that we were able to build out the space and offer affordable rent for the space to others. It's interesting, because while my business was the impetus for creating the food hub, once word was out there that we had the space there was a lot of folks inquiring because they also wanted affordable space. So, the collaborative and shared use kitchen developed organically. I didn’t anticipate that there was a need in the community and I didn’t build it with that I was going to create shared use space in mind, but there were so many inquiries from other businesses looking for an affordable space that it turned into that. A lot of the food hub has grown organically and out of need from the community.
Why is this work important to you?
Kim: In rural Oregon, this space creates potential livelihood opportunities that’s available to all residents of Cottage Grove and not just those that can afford it. As we are applying for more grants, we’ve been moving more into funding outreach efforts to reach folks in the community that have good ideas for food businesses and removing the barriers to participation so that it is something that is available and accessible to all. Our focus recently has been in getting youth into the space, accessing the immigrant community, and making sure that folks are aware that this facility exists for them to start and conduct business in. It’s not just affordable space that we offer, but also wrap-around services - business development support, networking, bilingual business mentorship. All of these services are designed to hand hold and support folks from the beginning until their businesses are up and running. That would’ve made a big difference for me when I started my business.
What is one accomplishment you are proud of?
Kim: Last year, we helped a Guatemalan family who was interested in starting a restaurant and gift shop. We gave them this space to pilot their ideas and offer them business support. Through our support, they did some microenterprise trainings through Zoom in Spanish. They took about 6 months to get their bearings around their business and figure out what was working before they even started paying rent, and then their rent was based on their income, as a percentage of their income. We were able to help steer them to a place where their business is operating sustainably and they now occupy a storefront downtown where they sell Guatemalan gifts and offer services to the Guatemalan community such as English language classes.
What do you think your community’s greatest strengths are?
Kim: Right now, I think there’s a whole rethinking of livelihoods and opportunities, and a bravery too, in starting your own business. Starting your own business is available as an option now more than ever. What we’re doing is capturing that momentum and broadcasting it even louder like “Absolutely, yes, it is possible! Be brave! And here, let us help you along the way.” Folks are coming into the Food Hub with these business ideas and it’s no longer a dream that they maybe do sometime later, it’s absolutely possible for folks to start their own businesses and create a livelihood for themselves and their families from that. Often when you start a small business you still have your day job until it’s actually working, so you’re actually working 2 jobs until your own business starts to make enough money to allow you to quit your day job. You have to be brave and hope it’s going to work, but you have to wait until its actually working before you can let go of your paycheck. It’s glorious to see that that’s where our clients are arriving, and that they are able to focus full time on running their business. I think that bravery in the community is something that’s coming to the forefront, because it does take courage to take that risk and start your own business.
One of the things I love the most about this project is all of the partnerships. It was one thing to work in the kitchen and have a food business and build the kitchen for other manufacturers but it has been great to start partnering with all these folks in the community like the Family Resource Center, Lane Community College’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and all these other folks to offer services rather than try to offer everything ourselves. For example, SPDC offers the business classes, we point folks there, and the Community Development Corporation (CDC) covers the cost of the classes for them. Local Foods, Local Places was a prime example of this process, by getting all of these folks to the table to make sure everybody was aware of what everybody else is doing in the community. I learned a lot from that. We are so much stronger together when we’re organized. That’s why the Local Foods, Local Places process was so extraordinary for me because it organized our whole community around our priorities with food and the food systems, our plan moving forward, and how are we going to work together. There’s so much support out there for folks that are moving into the territory of food and beverage business specifically. It’s like ‘how can we all get there together and help each other along the way?’ That feels like the spirit of our generation, I think, especially in small rural communities, where it only makes sense to collaborate. We’re too small here, and we’re so much more powerful, impactful, and productive when we’re working together.
Ayesha: I think the food hub overall is such a great asset to the community. For example, someone just came in who was looking for the Wildfire tonic. She couldn’t find it at the store, and so she came here because this is where the tonic is made. I think that was such an amazing thing because it is so cool for people to be able to come straight to the source. That’s such an important part of having a strong local food system. It’s very cool that the commercial kitchen and warehouse storage and food truck court lend itself to a community space.
How do you see Bohemia Food Hub and Cottage Grove growing in the future?
Kim: I think that we’ll grow by diversifying our offerings. Right now, we have a commercial kitchen for folks that want to manufacture a product for wholesale, and a food truck court that offers folks retail space to test out restaurant ideas, so now we’re planning on creating micro-restaurant spaces and storefronts that will give us retail space for folks that have ideas that need that. So, we would have these storefronts, the commercial kitchen; many different pathways for folks to actualize food businesses or non-food businesses. While our focus has been on food, the development of these spaces will allow us to open up to all small businesses. Right now, we’re not really open to the public, so when we are my desire is also for one of these storefronts to be a café space co-run by students, that would be a space where you can go to get information about the hub. You can get a cup of tea or a coffee and a pastry and there’s also a bunch of information about what Bohemia Food Hub does for folks who are looking for more information and who to talk to about starting their own business. It will act as a home base for our offerings. We also plan to develop the upstairs of the Hub’s warehouse into office spaces, co-working spaces, and possibly a textile space in order to diversify our business support offerings, and create more community-centered gathering spaces to bring in a lot more folks.
What barriers or obstacles are you experiencing in growing your organization?
Kim: Our biggest barrier right now is in capacity. All of a sudden, this project is up and moving and has all this great momentum, but it’s still just me. Now I have Ayesha, which is awesome, but I have been doing this by myself for a long time and its bigger than just me. We have funding to hire two people early next year, which is incredible. I can’t wait until we have more staff so that it’s not just on my shoulders and moving at my available pace. Having staffing in place will really help move things forward. Especially, for example, having in-house bilingual business support. Right now, our partner Rural Development Initiatives do all of our bilingual business support and outreach, but it would be really wonderful to have the capacity to have our own bilingual business support in-house. For us to be able to assume that role, and have that more formally embedded in our services, so that folks in the community know that this is a place that they can come for that.
Another barrier that we’ve had that we’re starting to remove is interconnecting with other players in the food system, like the farmers. The food hub was primarily born out of a need from producers, so the commercial kitchen was made primarily for wholesale food producers. There hasn’t been much interaction with farmers in the community in the past and that is something that we’re starting to work with gusto to remove those barriers and create strong connections. There’s an application that we’re working on right now that’s a collaborative grant that would bring in a refrigerated delivery vehicle and cold storage that would be mutually beneficial to all the producers in the food hub and farmers in the community. Cold storage is so important. I think that is going to be the next level for the Food Hub, and it’s going to allow us to reach not only the farmers, but also restauranteurs that are limited in cold storage space and are driving up to Eugene every day to get their goods because they don’t have room to store a weeks’ worth of goods in the restaurant, so if we’re able to offer cold storage space for their goods or we’re able to purchase goods and aggregate that kind of product here so they’re not doing those runs, and then also connecting restaurants to farmers so that farmers are able to grow what local restaurant’s need. If we have producers that need pepper or collards or whatever it is and we can connect them to farmers and they can grow a crop at scale, now their farming livelihood is leveling up and becoming a more sustainable livelihood which is really hard to achieve as a farmer.
Collaborating with the farmers and being a part of Local Foods, Local Places has made us ask, “What does the hub need to be for other folks in our community?” Expanding the Food Hub as a community asset is something that we’re ready for now, and we’re bringing in these partners so that we’re aware of what the needs are in the farming community that I’m disconnected from as a food producer. We have ideas here of what the needs are, but surveying restauranteurs, farmers, food producers, consumers to get a sense of what are the gaps, what are ways that’s the food hub could continue to bolster the space as an asset to the community. Bringing in all of those other big players in the food system into the mix feels really exciting.
What is bringing you joy at the moment?
Kim: My grandbabies for sure! I raise my twin grandbabies and crafting their future brings me joy. My community brings me joy. Being of service, whether it’s to my grandbabies or to the folks in my community. Being of service and helping make this community better is what it’s all about for me. Creating the space that is an asset for our community. It brings me joy to think that we’re about to create a facility here that allows folks to actualize their dreams, and these livelihood opportunities are going to be available for everyone in town. Helping make that possible is my joy.
Ayesha: Connecting with people in the community, especially as someone who’s new. Getting to meet people in all different capacities and from attending community events, that brings me joy.
To learn more about the Bohemia Food Hub’s services, visit their website or contact Kim Johnson – Bohemiafoodhub@gmail.com