Some of Toronto’s hottest startups are all working under one roof at the Venturepark Labs food incubator.
Venturepark has been in operation since 2015, but in 2019 took over a 20,000-square-foot kitchen facility at 76 Densley Ave. in North York that had already been supporting food startups.
“Venturepark Labs is a non-profit supporting early-stage entrepreneurs in the food and wellness categories. It was founded in 2015 by Dragons’ Den star and business icon Arlene Dickinson as District Ventures Accelerator and, in 2019, District Ventures Kitchen,” Ventuerpark Labs general manager Eric Wood tells blogTO.
“In May 2021, both initiatives came together as Venturepark Labs.”
The food incubator currently has over 40 active vendors working inside.
“The food incubator is more than just a shared kitchen space for food production. We provide our members with access to experts in food safety, labelling, recipe development and more. Additionally, our members have access to a digital library of tools and resources and benefit from regular presentations from our industry partners,” says Wood.
“Members also benefit from connections to our alum network, which features some of the fastest-growing companies in Canada.
The food incubator also offers a boot camp, Concept to Market Sprint, to support new product ideation. Last year, Concept to Market Sprint helped develop 90 new food products.”
Due to the timing of the opening of the food incubator, they were limited in executing their full vision but in the past year have added more resources, and their membership has tripled.
Goldy’s, which makes superseed cereal, just started working out of the space in summer 2022.
Their keto-friendly cereal is supposed to be crunchy like cereal. Prepared hot, it’s supposed to be creamy like oatmeal and ready in five minutes.
“We need Venture because it is a licensed kitchen for us to store, mix, and pack our cereal. Their knowledge and support have been vital in helping us incubate and grow our business,” Goldy’s CEO Daniel Carson tells blogTO. “We use the big industrial mixers and food storage areas specifically.”
With the efficiency they gain from being a part of Venturepark, they’re hoping to enter retail stores nationwide, expand product lines and enter the United States market.
Firecracker Pepper Sauce started working out of the space in 2021. They were part of Venturepark Labs’ accelerator program and have now upgraded to a larger space within the facility.
“Manufacturing space in the GTA, and especially in Toronto is really difficult to find, and extremely expensive, and we recognized a good opportunity. Plus, the staff at Venturepark Labs are wonderful community builders,” says Firecracker founder Carmen McCracken.
“Being able to be part of a larger community of entrepreneurs who work on-site is energizing. Aside from the incubator space, there is a shared commercial kitchen within the facility that can be rented out for production batches on an as-needed basis. There’s nothing else like Venturepark in the food space.”
Firecracker makes award-winning small-batch traditional Trini-style pepper sauce.
“We use the space to do everything on-site, from prep to manufacturing to packaging, and also warehousing. There is even a large fridge and freezer that can be rented monthly to allow us to store ingredients on-site. Many brands at our stage in business use an outside co-manufacturer to make their products,” says McCracken.
“We’ve found that with co-manufacturing, we would have had to compromise a lot of things that make our brand unique and stand out, like the use of fresh ingredients and herbs, which many co-packers don’t use. Manufacturing our products ourselves allows us to have full control of the process from beginning to end.”
Venturepark gave Firecracker a home base, as they’d been operating out of various facilities across Ontario previously.
“We’d pull up to the kitchens, unload everything, produce, then reload the vehicle again and bring it back to our garage or an outside rental facility for storage… imagine doing this every week?” says McCracken.
“The exhaustion of loading in and out hundreds of bottles filled with product, and manually loading it in and out was incredibly draining. We never thought of how important it is to a business like ours to have access to a loading dock.”
The way Venturepark has allowed them to focus on growing the business has allowed Firecracker to expand into more big retail chains like Sobeys and even (gasp) hire an employee.
Prepared meal company Yumba now produces over 6,000 meals per week out of Venturepark.
“We have some of the best food handling/safety in our industry and at the beginning, Venturepark’s experienced leaders were instrumental in helping us get there. Now we are working with them more on large-scale production best practices and strategies. Eric, the GM, has been a great ally and has a ton of experience,” Yumba CEO Will Bowcott tells blogTO.
“We’re aiming to build a custom kitchen designed for our operation in 2023. Somewhere we can call home for the next 10-plus years. Venture Park Labs has been instrumental in our development and they are no doubt laying down the framework to house some of the city’s most innovative food businesses for years to come.”
Wood plans to continue his allyship with small food startups, and says Venturepark Labs is planning on expanding its program offerings to reach more entrepreneurs, and will also be hosting public events.
“If you have a product idea, we want to help make it a success.
The demand for our food incubator facility is high, so we are actively looking at ways to expand our footprint,” says Wood.
“To make that possible, we want to work with corporate partners that align with our vision and want to invest in Canadian entrepreneurs and locally-produced products.”