A new program in downtown Winnipeg is combining food and finance to help newcomers and people living on low incomes start their own food businesses.

Knox Community Kitchen has opened the doors of its $500,000 commercial kitchen to entrepreneurs who need a little help getting their catering or baking businesses off the ground.

Helen Akue is using the kitchen to get her Nigerian-Canadian fusion cuisine into Winnipeg’s food scene.

“I grew up in a house where we did lots of cooking,” explained Akue, who came to Canada in 2010. “My mom was a chef for over 30 years. She owned a restaurant.”

Knox community kitchen oxtail soup sign

Knox Community Kitchen offers an indoor market with international cuisine every second Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Akue has already launched a pop-up eatery and serves her dishes at Knox’s indoor market twice a month, but she wants to do more.

“A couple of people have successfully launched their business,” said Natasha Ross, the executive director of Knox Centre Winnipeg.

Gozies Bread and Shut Your Pie Hole, a company that makes homemade pies have already had success.

“[Shut Your Pie Hole] completely took off … She’s getting tons of orders for her pies,” said Ross.

Ross applied for funding for the kitchen a few years ago, and when all three levels of government stepped up, the community centre had to figure out a way to make it work for people in the community.

Now, it’s a collective with people bartering skills like administrative work and others paying discounted rates to use the space.

Professional chefs are also donating their time, helping more inexperienced cooks develop their craft.

“We balance it out with moderately established businesses so the mentorship is really strong,” said Ross.

To cap it off – young cooks get exposure at the bi-weekly indoor markets that offer an eclectic menu with everything from oxtail soup to Belgian waffles cooked by Sebastien De Lazzer, who immigrated from Belgium with his wife and children a few years ago.

“This kind of waffle is different than what people know,” he said. “This big pearl of sugar there, that comes from Belgium. Very unique. I think it could make the difference.”

De Lazzer is trying out different recipes in the commercial kitchen and trying to find what a Canadian market will eat up.

"If I can expand my business, eventually I would like to open a food truck,” he said.

Akue has already tinkered with family recipes – making a slightly less spicy oxtail soup and getting rave reviews.

Alareen Doherty cupcakes

Alareen Doherty sells cupcakes and cakes with buttercream frosting. The nurse wants to make a transition to making wedding cakes so she’s offering administrative support for the centre in exchange for time in the kitchen. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

“It was more like a hobby or something I’m used to, and [now] I love it,” said Akue. "You find that they come back for more, and that alone -- it keeps me going."

Across the market, Alareen Doherty is selling cupcakes with buttercream frosting. The nurse wants to make a transition to making wedding cakes so she’s offering administrative support for the centre in exchange for time in the kitchen.

“I’m not working in my house anymore, I have three ovens and a huge dishwasher so the cleanup is twice as fast so it’s worked out really good,” she said. “Most venues and most markets also you need to cook out of a commercial kitchen so if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t be able to sell my products.”

Eventually, Ross wants to turn the basement space into a full-time grocery store and market for the community, but for now, they’re working on building a collective of 10 people.

The market runs every second Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The next market is on Nov. 14.