The Food Fort was established as an evolution of ECDI’s desire to be Ohio’s top supporter of small businesses in need. As an organization looking to provide opportunity to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged populations, we recognized both the enormous potential of food-driven entrepreneurs attempting to rise up in these areas and the substantial hurdles they faced in such a high-risk industry.
A decade ago, ECDI founded its first specialized food program to address the unique needs of aspiring food entrepreneurs by providing them with industry training, professional guidance and capital. The program expanded into a food cart commissary operation that gave owners storage space for their carts and gave up-and-comers the chance to test the market with cart rentals and leasing options. Additionally, we started to run our own food safety and inspections classes, providing hands-on technical assistance and industry coaching for our food-based clients.
Breaking New Ground
At this point, the services we were providing to clients looking to break into the food industry were substantial, but ECDI still recognized the increase in risk and expense when attempting to open and operate a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It was necessary for us to devise a better way for entrepreneurs seeking this particular path to find their footing, test their products, and grow their business.
In 2011, ECDI received a grant from the Office of Community Services to convert an 8,000 square foot warehouse in a neighborhood that was a USDA designated ‘food desert’ into an incubator that would be called the Food Fort. Through the Food Fort, ECDI is able to help clients holistically overcome the barriers of financing, training and demand for operating space, while continuing to focus on serving vulnerable populations. The Food Fort saw so much demand that we expanded the space into a second warehouse in 2015.
Through the years, ECDI has tried to make the Food Fort the most comprehensive solution available for all food businesses. Ongoing one-on-one technical assistance provided by Food Fort staff and professional volunteers includes business plan development, marketing and branding assistance, accounting and financial review, and networking. The Food Fort enables business owners to test new ventures, recipes and delivery systems without substantial upfront investment.
ECDI makes these services available to our clients with affordable membership. While the premises of the Food Fort are owned by ECDI, each occupant of the Food Fort retains 100% of their equity. Our goal is simply to encourage growth, sustainability, job creation, and employee retention while providing a functional home base.
Everything Under One Roof
ECDI is giving business owners the freedom to develop their own unique culinary masterpieces, network with other businesses, and establish their markets at their own pace with a truly exhaustive set of resources and services.
The Food Fort Features:
- 3 Full-Service Kitchens
- 2 Walk-In Coolers
- 1 Walk-In Freezer
- Dry Food Storage
- Prep Tables
- 24/7 Access
- Ongoing Technical Assistance
- On-Site Propane
- 1:1 Business Coaching
- Group Trainings
- Flexible Financing Options
Continued Education Courses:
- Food Safety Certification
- Financial Literacy
- Employee Benefits Information
- Healthcare Education
All this is available in facilities open 24/7 for the convenience of clients that operate on the challenging and often irregular schedules of the industry.
Go for 2.0
Food Fort 2.0 represents the progression in ECDI’s quest to provide assistance at every point in the process of turning a concept into an enterprise. As thriving, self-sustaining food businesses graduated out of the Fort, we identified the opportunity to create a separate space for owners whose needs had grown beyond what the original space could offer, but were not yet ready to have their own facilities. Lisa Gutierrez, owner of Dos Hermanos, is one of ECDI’s Food Fort clients who will be moving her operations into Food Fort 2.0 in October.
Gutierrez launched Dos Hermanos in 2012. She had little savings and no formal business education, but she had great-tasting tacos. ECDI’s Food Fort staff approached Gutierrez and helped her take her business mobile, marketing her enterprise and helping her find office delivery contracts. Her brand, authentic Oaxacan-style recipes crafted with the best local ingredients in town, became an overnight hit. She quickly secured contracts to serve at Central Ohio’s largest sporting events including both Ohio State football games and Columbus Crew soccer matches. Today, Dos Hermanos has a location in the North Market, offers event and catering services, and is one of the Food Fort’s biggest clients. Gutierrez will be moving her business into Food Fort 2.0, which will give her the opportunity to expand Dos Hermanos even further.
“Food Fort 2.0 is the natural next progressive step for Dos Hermanos,” Gutierrez says. “The original Food Fort building has served, not only us, but many local food-based businesses well. ECDI has created an amazing incubation environment here, and we have seen many of our fellow food truck owners go from operating a single food truck like ourselves, to now operating two or three. For us, Food Fort 2.0 answers the question of what’s next.”
The Food Fort 2.0 is comprised of commercial kitchens, workshop spaces, and a community room. The increased space will allow Dos Hermanos to expand operations, increase their food delivery foot-print, offer a pick-up location, and provide more opportunities to connect with the community.
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to spread out, give the staff an amazing place to work, and let the creativity begin to flow,” Gutierrez says.
She plans on offering cooking classes, tours, food tasting events, and hopes to become a supportive resource for other food-based businesses.
Whether it’s a transition space for owners looking to take that next step into brick-and-mortar or an expansion space for those running retail operations, Food Fort 2.0 will meet these unique needs by transforming 4,000 square feet of existing warehouse space into a fully-functional production hub.
In just over ten years, ECDI has evolved a training and assistance program for Central Ohio food businesses into three flourishing operational spaces, and we’ll continue to explore how we can best aid aspiring entrepreneurs and underserved neighborhoods.
This mutli-part sponsored series highlighting ECDI’s work in Columbus is presented with paid support by ECDI.
Since 2004, ECDI has assisted Ohio’s entrepreneurs through its one-stop shop business services model, suited to meet the needs of all entrepreneurs, regardless of what business stage they’re in. From providing capital to entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses, to providing focused, business-specific educational opportunities to enhance entrepreneurial skill sets, ECDI works with their clients to meet their unique needs. Whether assisting a new client with a business concept or an accomplished entrepreneur opening a fifth location, ECDI’s “never say no” approach has allowed over twelve thousand entrepreneurs to take advantage of the services it provides. Visit ecdi.org today to learn more.