Food-Based Businesses Find Room to Grow at the New Greencubator Space
Like many buildings on the riverfront north of Downtown, the abandoned factory at 1124 Lumiere Place had sat barren for years. Over the past decade, the promise of the area’s revitalization—as the spot for a new NFL stadium or Amazon’s latest campus—never came to fruition, but the hope that something could bring the building and those around it back to life never died.
But today, inside its brick walls, life—and optimism—is all around you. In one room, Salanova, Bibb and buttercrunch lettuce are being grown to grace the plates of local restaurants. Across the hall, a mom-and-pop shop is bottling up one of St. Louis’ favorite barbecue staples. And on another floor, basil is sprouting from hydroponic pipes lining the walls like a contemporary art installation.
Here at the Greencubator space, the brainchild of Justine PETERSEN, a St. Louis-based nonprofit and small business microlender, three local food-based startups have planted roots to cultivate their companies in exciting new ways, and the doors have been opened for other small businesses to join them.
Bringing the farm to the riverfront
When Justine PETERSEN was gifted this former food label packaging plant two years ago, they felt they were initially in over their heads, unsure what to do with this enormous space, admits Galen Gondolfi, the nonprofit’s chief communications officer. But as with so many projects in St. Louis, the community came together to create something amazing, in this case, led by Justine PETERSEN COO Sheri Flanigan-Vazquez.
“The Greencubator is a physical manifestation of serendipity,” says Gondolfi. “When the building was given to us, there wasn’t a plan, but there was an opportunity. As we imagined what it could be, things seemed to just fall into place.”
For starters, two of Justine PETERSEN’s clients needed space to branch out. Good Life Growing, a social enterprise to combat urban decay and food insecurity, wanted to grow its apprenticeship program to educate the next generation of urban farmers in hydroponics and aquaponics. The other, Freddie Lee’s Gourmet Sauces, wanted to bring all of its production and bottling in house to meet the growing demand for its barbecue products.
The potential for the space and the jobs it could create in North City also caught the eye of a number of grantmakers, including the William A. Kerr Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Missouri Foundation for Health.
With the financial backing in place and the tenants to step into the space, including the third business—St. Louis Indoor Produce (SLIP), a hydroponics startup and developer of patent-pending LED grow lights—the Greencubator underwent a $1.2 million renovation to help change the face of the riverfront.
Offering fresh food and opportunity to St. Louis residents
As soon as the Greencubator launched in June, interest in the space from food-based businesses began flooding in, with everyone from caterers to food producers to mushroom farmers looking to be part of this new urban agricultural landscape.
James Forbes, CEO of Good Life Growing, believes the Greencubator will help take his company’s food production to the next level. Through hydroponics, growers will be able to harvest in-demand vegetables like collards, tomatoes and peppers throughout the winter months to supply restaurants and shops in the area, including Good Life’s own market in an underserved neighborhood, Old North Provisions.
Even more important, the Greencubator is allowing Good Life to expand its apprenticeship program, funded through the U.S. Department of Labor, to provide residents with training in hydroponics, aquaponics and organic soil management as well as the science of harvesting, washing and packaging to meet government regulations.
“It’s a good setting for people to learn the real cultivation side of things, so when they’re ready, they’ve become really attractive to the employer base that’s hiring grow technicians,” explains Forbes. “The starting salary is anywhere from $45,000 to $60,000, and that’s without a college degree. It’s a growing career path, and folks who live in the inner city have missed out on these opportunities because if you don’t grow up in rural America, you don’t know about them.”
Both Forbes and Gondolfi agree that the Greencubator can play a key role in helping ease food insecurity in St. Louis and shining a light on the positive advancements the city is making in terms of technology and employment.
“To me, this could grow beyond the Greencubator we originally envisioned,” Gondolfi says. “I hope it can become a part of a burgeoning district. If you think about the entire ecosystem of incubators in St. Louis, there hasn’t been one specific to urban agriculture. This is the start to something exciting, and what it could mean to the riverfront at large is huge.”
Images courtesy of Good Life Growing.