Dominican desserts company Sweets Melendez recently became the first business to launch using the new downtown Hazleton shared kitchen incubator inside the Hayden Family Center for the Arts.
Owner Maribel Chavez began thinking about creating a food-based business in November of 2019 when she started making Dominican sweet beans before transitioning to desserts.
“All of our desserts are handcrafted and made with love. They are made with fruits, a hint of cinnamon and vanilla and contain no preservatives, artificial color or high fructose corn syrup,” Chavez said.
The shared kitchen incubator was created through a partnership between the Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress, the Hazleton Art League, The Hazleton Launchbox, CAN BE and other members of The Hazleton Innovation Collaborative (THInC). The organizations worked together with local and regional food, entrepreneurship and culinary arts education providers to develop a program designed to support aspiring and existing food entrepreneurs.
The program includes education from neighboring colleges and universities, small business development assistance from THInC partners like CAN BE and the Hazleton Launchbox, and access to the new commercially-licensed kitchen at the Hayden Family Center for the Arts, which is available for lease to food start-ups. Food entrepreneurs will also be able to lease short-term space in The HUB Welcome Center to test the sale of their product in a retail setting.
CAN DO Director of Economic Development Jocelyn Sterenchock said, “CAN BE is thrilled to partner with the Hazleton Art League to offer support to food start-ups, even outside of the Innovation Center. The process of securing the proper licensing can be overwhelming for new business owners so were happy to assist Maribel with that to make starting her business a little bit easier.”
Hazleton Art League Executive Director Ali McKittrick said, “It is a sweet success to have Maribel as our first tenant. I have seen her in action at some of the other downtown events and she is really passionate about her product. The kitchen incubator is perfect for getting a culinary business up and running. It is stocked with high-end commercial kitchen equipment to make cooking and baking easier for entrepreneurs.”
Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress (DHAP) Executive Director Krista Schneider said, “I have known Maribel for many years and I am very happy for her to have this opportunity. Having a kitchen incubator downtown has been a long-time goal of DHAP, and was a key component of our Strategic Plan. I think it is perfectly poised to leverage all the resources we and our partners have worked so hard to provide, and will further help make the downtown a destination for arts, entrepreneurship, and education.”
Chavez said that once she saw how people were reacting to the food she was making, it prompted her to take the steps she needed to turn her hobby into a real business.
“I feel so excited about starting. I had been looking for a commercial kitchen in town to get started and grow my business and all of them are really expensive.” she said, “I think the shared kitchen incubator is a great opportunity for others to get started with minimal risk and see if what they have in mind is really going to be profitable before making a larger commitment.”
In addition to having access to the professional kitchen space she needed, Chavez said going through the program helped her to get all the legal documents in place for starting her business and she encourages others to check out the program.
“The process was long but they needed to make sure I had all the paperwork that is required for being a legal business. Jocelyn from CAN BE and Fermin from Penn State were a huge help! I will say to others to start small and take it step by step in becoming a legitimate food-based business. The kitchen incubator will allow for them to start small and be proud of the product they want to bring to market.”
Chavez said being able to run her own business gives her the flexibility to spend more time with her family.
“I decided to start Sweets Melendez because I felt in my heart that it was the answer for spending more time with my kids,” she said.
She added that although the world is still going through difficult times, she has a business plan in place and many ideas of how to grow the business, including getting employees to help with production, acquiring machines to make the process faster and easier, expanding to additional distribution channels, and eventually opening a brick and mortar location within Hazleton to sell directly to customers.