Restaurants and food production have long offered opportunities for marginalised people to advance in life. That's if they can get a start and a little intel from those in the know. FoodLab Sydney is a social enterprise helping would-be entrepreneurs from high-barrier backgrounds to wedge open the (kitchen) door. They do this by empowering participants with mentoring, business acumen, and an affordable kitchen space. Managing director Jamie Loveday says the initiative began with workshops and a mentoring program, and has now evolved into a complete culinary incubator.
Founded in 2019, FoodLab takes in cohorts of entrepreneurs, often from refugee, migrant, Aboriginal and low-income backgrounds and offers hands-on advice. The goal is to take food start-ups from ideation to real life, and to help established businesses level up. "We've got mentors that are butchers, farmers, labelling consultants – the access and information they share is unparalleled," says Loveday.
The real win, according to Loveday, is the community that has formed in the process. "The food business can be isolating – so we're trying to encourage a sense of connection beyond the table."
FoodLab's new commercial kitchen space in Strathfield is a place for the community, and offers affordable rental rates to previous FoodLab participants. "People who may have struggled to find these paths can come here and work on their business," says Loveday. The commercial-grade kitchen can be used for catering as well as creating and packaging retail products. "Scale is power in many ways," says Loveday.
Since its inception, FoodLab Sydney has supported the launch of more than 20 food businesses, ranging from market stalls to catering and products. Alumni include Racha Abou Alchamat who participated in FoodLab in 2021 and whose business, Racha's Syrian Kitchen, has gone from strength to strength. "The idea of my business is to present Syrian food and culture. It's been a beautiful journey," says Alchamat. Praising participants for what they taught her, Alchamat also made the most of mentors' time. "Throughout the sessions, they started to see something in me, and I started to have confidence."
Alchamat now runs cooking classes at Paddy's Markets in Sydney and takes part in markets and pop-ups. She is also developing a Syrian-style ma'amoul – a shortbread pastry with cheese – as a retail product. It's just one of many examples FoodLab has helped to thrive.
"The best part is seeing the community grow," says Loveday. "It's exciting to see the businesses we've supported scale up."
Visit foodlabsydney.org.au to find out more.