Three years ago, the leaders of local nonprofit Conexion Americas realized that many Nashville immigrants wanted to start food businesses but had nowhere to cook. Thus was born Mesa Komal: a low-cost incubator kitchen for immigrants to launch food trucks or artisan brands for local grocery stores.
Since its beginnings, this kitchen has continuously grown in popularity, with a waitlist swelling to 45 in early November. To meet this need, the nonprofit recently completed a renovation to increase the kitchen’s capacity — enabling home cooks to become full-fledged food entrepreneurs.
Maria Hurtado is one of those aspiring entrepreneurs. When Hurtado moved to Lebanon from Mexico in 1998, she left her family’s multi-generational chorizo business behind. But she says her friends who own restaurants in the area have been begging her to obtain a business permit. They want to include Hurtado’s traditional Mexican sausage on their menus.
“They are waiting for me because they already know the product,” Hurtado says. “They taste it right here in my home.”
Federal health regulations restrict the sale of foods made in a home kitchen, so for years Hurtado simply has been giving away her spicy specialty. But now she has the chance to cook in a commercially certified space: the Mesa Komal kitchen.
Hurtado first visited the nonprofit, Conexion Americas, more than a decade ago, seeking help with family taxes and information about schools. She eventually joined a business incubator program that inspired her to start selling her chorizo in Nashville. Hurtado joined the waitlist for the kitchen in March.
“I was the number 19 and every month I was calling and asking if it was my time,” Hurtado says. “And they’d say, ‘No, it’s not your turn, so sorry.’”
At the beginning of this month, the waitlist reached its peak of 45. To meet the growing popularity, Conexion Americas renovated the kitchen to take its capacity from 20 entrepreneurs to 50.
Cooks who use the kitchen each pay about $500 a month to cover basic costs. They all are eligible for business training provided by Conexion Americas at no additional cost.
The kitchen’s expansion was made possible with help from Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and his wife Jenny — who together made a personal donation of $250,000.
“Any way in which we can invest in future entrepreneurs, we want to do,” Randy Boyd says. “So when I heard about Conexion’s program for food entrepreneurs, it immediately appealed to what our normal philanthropic interests are.”
Immigrants are already more than twice as likely to start a business than non-immigrants, according to a recent government report. And restaurants and food service comprise the largest category of immigrant-owned small businesses in the U.S.
But Mesa Komal is trying to be more than a rental kitchen. Manager Rosa Martha Mulanax says the popularity is in large part due to comradery.
“A difference of our kitchen is the community feel that we have,” Mulanax says. “Everybody works like a team, like a whole kitchen, and not like different businesses just renting a kitchen.”
The kitchen is only three years old, so there’s not much data on overall success rates. But there are already some success stories. Hummus Chick is a brand that’s now sold in grocery stores around Nashville and Birmingham.
Perhaps next it’s Tres Generaciones, translated 'Three Generations' — that’s what Maria Hurtado plans to call her chorizo once she can start selling it.