The 16 Tech Innovation District is described as a place where innovators and Indianapolis converge. One of its newest additions is the artisan marketplace or AMP; a European-style, open-air food market with shipping containers converted into food stalls. A unique feature is the Black chef incubator and accelerator program housed in the market.

The Be Nimble Foundation is a social enterprise committed to creating a diverse and inclusive tech community and the driving force behind this program called Melon Kitchen Virtual Concepts.

Kelli N. Jones is a Be Nimble Co-Founder and program director. She spoke to Travel Noire about infusing tech into the food industry, how Melon Kitchen increases opportunities for Chefpreneurs to succeed, and when the public can expect to be introduced to the first cohort.

Courtesy of Brandon Wright for Savor317

Travel Noire: Tell us about the background of the program.

Jones: Melon is actually one of our industry-focused accelerators, and we really wanted to find a way to focus on an industry where people of color may not have the same sort of access to the innovation economy and the food economy, quite the same as many of our counterparts. Ghost kitchens and virtual restaurant concepts are something that we’ve been really interested in and passionate about for a really long time.

We developed this program in late 2018, and we were planning to launch it in 2020 but everything with COVID-19 happened. It honestly made the idea for this program a lot stronger with everything really moving to delivery and having to be virtual. I guess the timing is perfect for it. Now, we have this platform, this accelerator, and also a ghost kitchen to directly train Black chefs in how to build virtual restaurants.

Courtesy of Brandon Wright for Savor317

TN: What kind of support do the chefs get as part of your program?

Jones: It’s a three-month program. In month one we really focus on the business foundation. So we do all the health department training, ServSafe training, and legal paperwork. We have partnerships with banks that are coming in and doing financial literacy, menu development, forecasting— all the foundational things you need to start a business. The great thing is, it’s a hybrid program. So it’s one part curriculum and one part real life experience.

TN: What is the connection to 16 Tech?

Jones: We are in the 16 Tech innovation district, which is located on Indiana Avenue in a historically Black neighborhood. When 16 Tech built the innovation campus, there were those spheres of gentrification, especially when you’re building innovation districts in the middle of traditionally Black neighborhoods. But, 16 Tech did a really fantastic job ensuring that there was innovation, inclusion, and that organizations like mine could build programming and things like that in the space. The chefs get to work out of a state-of-the-art brand-new commissary kitchen for those three months while testing their menu ideas. It’s no cost to them. The only cost that they may have is some food costs, but anything in the pantry, use of space, materials, products, all of that stuff comes included as part of them getting into the program.

TN: What do you need to qualify for this program?

Jones: What we’re really looking for is anyone that’s interested in food entrepreneurship. That can be anyone from trained chefs that maybe have worked in a restaurant for tons of years, or it could be people that are home cooks or are chefs on IG or TikTok. We really want it to be open access to everyone and create an infrastructure where anyone could create a business out of this model.

Courtesy of Brandon Wright for Savor317

TN: When should we expect to hear from the first cohorts of chefs?

Jones: The first cohort has been picked and there are seven chefs in this group. We’re really excited because they’re all on different sides of the spectrum. We have chefs that have been cooking or in the catering business for a really long time. There are new people that are passionate about food who are building a following, and just some really fascinating and diverse groups of people building and cooking different types of food— while being representative of all things Black.

To learn more about Melon Virtual Kitchen Concepts, visit their website.

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