Lion's Lair: Hamilton entrepreneurs want to help people in the culinary industry

The six-person team at Roux, Ontario's first culinary incubator, want to expand their reach and get the public learning about food in their commercial kitchen.
Stacey Austin, Iain Kirkpatrick and Susan Austin are one half of Roux. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

It started with a brainstorming session, a simple email and a really quick real estate decision.

Susan Austin and her five business partners, who have strong backgrounds in the culinary industry and entrepreneurship, figured out there was a big gap for people trying to start up a culinary business. Purchasing a space or installing a commercial kitchen is not easy on the wallet.

But like the clients they wanted to serve, they didn't have a space and couldn't afford major renovation costs.

"We had thrown around this loose concept… we just thought [the space] didn't exist," she said. "But Brad [Austin, a business partner] emailed this link saying 'Check this out.' I looked at and thought, 'That's not real!'"

Contained in that link were the details of a property on Burlington Street East, a former barbecue catering company. The space was basically turnkey, said Iain Kirkpatrick.

"It was the perfect fit and it made it real," said Stacey Austin.

Their business is Roux, Ontario's first culinary incubator, and for the team of six — Scott Austin and Tanisha White along with the four already mentioned — it's been a quick trip to the top of their game.

After acquiring that building on Jan. 15 and making cosmetic upgrades to the space, Roux had its grand opening March 22. They now service 21 clients who operate catering or food truck businesses and they plan to make quite the impact on Hamilton's bustling culinary industry.

The company

Roux is like a one-stop shop for anyone trying to establish themselves in the food business.

For the real newbies, Roux offers consulting, marketing and graphic design services (if you've seen the big green Karma CaMEALEon truck around the city, that's the work of Scott). Their Burlington Street space has huge commercial kitchen that's open 24 hours, seven days a week for preparation work and lots of space for storage. There is video surveillance inside and in the parking lot, so food truck owners can confidently leave their vehicles nearby.

Health and safety is a major consideration for Roux, at the city is sending clients their way.

"We're starting to get more occasional clients, pop-up vendors, people who are mandated now by public health, and because there is now a facility, public health is probably our No. 1 source for leads for new clients right now," she said.

Since Roux's team was the first in the province, they worked without a template to put their business together. But they did look to some of the 300-odd commercial kitchens and culinary incubators in the U.S. for a bit of help. Now, Susan said they are getting calls from people living in places like Ottawa looking for tips to start their own incubator.

The public perception of Roux is that it's a place for food trucks. That's how they've been portrayed in the media thus far, Stacey said.  But now that they are established, the team is looking to beef up their profile as a place for culinary education. In the fall, Roux is launching a series of educational videos and courses for the public.

"There are a lot of other applications, so now that we've established ourselves and put ourselves in the map, now we'll be focusing on expanding and letting the public really know our full range," Stacey said. "Now we can reach out in a bigger way to the citizens of Hamilton and really anyone local who has a purpose for using our kitchen."

The team

Roux is a six-person, close-knit team. Their expertise is far reaching and roots are deep in Hamilton.

Susan was a founding member of the Gorilla Cheese team and took the runner-up prize in the Lion's Lair competition two years ago. Before that she worked in retail sales.

Scott is a graphic designer and has 27 years of experience at the Hamilton Spectator. He was also a founding member of Gorilla Cheese.

Iain is a chef by trade, having worked under chef Lynn Crawford at the Four Seasons, Anthony Rose at the Drake Hotel and Jamie Kennedy. And his experience is an asset to clients.

"Everything from processes to turning five steps into four steps, development and cost control and working quite closely with health and safety and fielding questions, helping clients with catering," he said. "It's really my playground."

Brad Austin was an actor for two decades and also worked with Gorilla Cheese.

Tanisha is a journalism graduate who is the social media and communications expert.

Stacey has owned a Burlington-based salon for the past 10 years and was looking for an opportunity to expand.

"I believe in the entrepreneurial skill and wanted to invest, and invest in Hamilton where I now live," she said.

Why Roux should win Lion's Lair

A big team like Roux's is going to come up with many answers to that question. These three certainly covered the bases.

"We will have a far reaching impact on economic development," Stacey said. "Roux ticks all the boxes for Lion's Lair."

Kirkpatrick followed up quickly with a nod.

"We just have such a unique concept," he said. "A lot of caterers and food trucks are working out of home still so, again it's the importance of health and safety that we provide."

For Susan, she knows from experience the best businesses "solve a pain, they fill a gap." That's what Roux is doing for Hamilton, she said. People are stymied by their inability to purchase a building or install a kitchen.

"The incubator concept in the States has an 87 per cent success rate. The people who cut their teeth in this kind of environment go on to open their own business, have a brick and motor space or whatever their goals are, they reach them," she said. "That's so exciting to think that eight out of 10 of our clients are going to go on to do great things, so it's pretty amazing to think we can have that much impact on our economy."

CBC Hamilton's Julia Chapman will have full coverage of Lion's Lair 2013, including profiles of each of the 10 finalists, an inside look at their training and interviews with the Lions, right up to the gala on Oct. 10.