SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — When Robyne Moore-Taylor, owner of Taylor’d Eatz, relocated to the area from New Jersey, she needed a kitchen to work from and found Shreveport’s Choice Neighborhoods, Milam Street Kitchen Incubator/Community Kitchen, known also as MSKICK.

Federally funded, Choice Neighborhoods is a competitive grant program that provides flexible resources for local leaders to help transform high-poverty, distressed neighborhoods into mixed-income neighborhoods with affordable housing, safe streets, and good schools.

“I am a small business that transitioned from New Jersey,” Moore-Taylor said. “I did some research on MSKICK and loved the concept of the incubator kitchen where they are also helping small businesses grow. It’s not just that we have a kitchen facility — which I think is great. Programs like Grab and Go, allows small businesses an opportunity to serve the community as well as be a for-profit business.”

WHAT BRINGS HER TO THE AREA?

“My wife is from Monroe, but my business is based in Shreveport,” Moore-Taylor said. “We’ve recently had our first granddaughter and she’s here as well. So, basically, family brought us down from Jersey. We love it here.”

Businesses taking part in the program have to provide their own food.

“It’s just like running your own business but they are providing the building,” Moore-Taylor said. “I use locally sourced produce and meat.”

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED HER BUSINESS?

“It has had a great impact on my business right now because, not only am I a caterer, I also do Popup and delivery services,” Moore-Taylor said. “With me being a new business, I’m having a hard time getting people to buy into my business because it’s food. People like to see and taste food, but I don’t have the capacity, with the virus, to do a PopUp. It’s like, I show up. I have a portable restaurant. I have a canopy, warmers…it’s a full production.”

“A lot of people are really skeptical with the curbside pickup, no-contact deliveries and things like that,” Moore-Taylor said. “I’ve gained some customers, but I’m sure I could be doing a higher volume if COVID-19 hadn’t shown its ugly face.

“Social media is my biggest platform right now. I do daily posts and a lot of sharing and just trying to make connections. Networking through social media is the most active way for me to drum up business.”

MSKICK AND HOW IT CAME ABOUT

A project with strong community support, the Southern University at Shreveport program is grounded in the Choice Neighborhoods’ planning process.

Recipient of a 2010 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant, the City of Shreveport partnered with a regional metropolitan planning organization, targeting the city’s oldest inner-city neighborhoods, Allendale and Ledbetter Heights and West Edge, which all suffer from high abandonment, urban decay, poverty, crime and unemployment.

“We focused on Allendale, Ledbetter Heights and West Edge,” said Darrin Dixon, director for Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship at Southern University at Shreveport. “Allendale once had a public housing complex called Jackson Heights. We wanted to revitalize these communities that once were thriving in Shreveport but had begun to suffer because of flight.”

Outreach and engagement efforts revealed that a lot of food entrepreneurs in the “Choice Neighborhoods” work from their homes, preparing meals for catering activities, or creating food products for sale at local markets, with a limited capacity to grow.

The need stood out for a kitchen incubator to support existing food-related businesses in the Choice Neighborhoods to create livable wage jobs.

A multi-level program, MSKICK functions as a kitchen incubator/workforce development hybrid to encourage culinary, workforce training and entrepreneurship opportunities to the Allendale/Ledbetter Heights and West Edge communities.

“The purpose of MSKICK is multifaceted,” Dixon said. “MSKICK primarily is an incubator for culinary entrepreneurs in Shreveport. Louisiana is known for its culinary prowess, but we wanted to give these entrepreneurs the ability to scale their businesses because most of them are operating under the cottage law and have been cooking out of their homes in their kitchens, but it’s just so much they can do in a residential kitchen. So, we offer them the opportunity to be able to utilize commercial-grade space and kitchen to be able to scale their business and serve at a greater capacity.”

THE WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT COMPONENT OF THE PROGRAM

“We work with residents from public housing from Allendale and Ledbetter Heights and West Edge communities in culinary, hospitality training,” Dixon explained. “We partnered with local hospitality industry leaders like the casinos. We do the training and they would agree to provide spots for them for interning or apprenticeships to train the participants. As a result, they would hire them and bring them on with salaries above the starting rate, which gives the residents the ability to earn a livable wage as a result of the training.”

The project also makes use of idle, abandoned and adjudicated properties acquired by the City of Shreveport.

THE HEALTH COMPONENT

“We wanted to approach this from a health prospective also, given the fact that most of the residents in these communities are African American,” Dixon said. “African Americans lead most demographics in health-related incidents that result from poor dietary habits. We wanted to do classes and demonstrations that would encourage and demonstrate how we can prepare food that we love so much, in a healthier manner.”

Turaeza Hose, executive Director for Milam Street Kitchen Incubator Community Kitchen at Southern University at Shreveport, talked about participation in the MSKICK program.

“We’re a conduit source that helps mentor the small, food culinary businesses to help them scale their product and grow, Hose said. “So, it’s not a selection process. We look for the need and there’s a need for commercial kitchen space in Shreveport because there isn’t any. A lot of times, what the chefs have had to do is find a restaurant kitchen in order to use kitchen space. We now have that space for them. All they have to do is reach out to us and we will accept them into our program.”

Currently there are about 10 culinary business owners taking part in the program. There is a cost to participate.

For more information about cost, please contact Hose at 318-670-9780.

MSKICK FUNDING NEEDS

Major funders for the program include the City of Shreveport, HUD, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Louisiana Department of Economic Development and Caddo Parish.

“We’re a startup program, so we need some years to get to a place where we can be sustainable,” Dixon said. “So, those dollars from the city, from the parish, Blue Cross and the other partners, helps us build our program to where we can be sustainable. We have operational costs and variables that need to be met on a monthly basis. The university, (Southern University at Shreveport) is investing in the program but we still do not have the financial capacity being that it’s just one of many programs at the university to cover all the costs. So, we do need that support from the public and private organizations and agencies to help us until we can sustain on our own.”

The Caddo Parish Commission discussed funding for Southern University at Shreveport Louisiana programs. Commissioners are expected to vote May 21, on a $25,000 allocation for MSKICK.

MSKICK FEEDS THE COMMUNITY

It’s not just cold sandwiches the chefs are cooking and serving, hot and healthy meals are provided through Grab & Go. Word on the street is that the meals are great!

“Grab & Go came from a need to address food insecurities that were identified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dixon said. “We serve about 125 meals a day. We started the last week of April and will continue as long as we have funding.”

The Grab & Go meals helped on several fronts.

“One was that it provided caterers who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to cook for, an opportunity to get some work,” Dixson said. “We also were able to use it as an opportunity for some workforce development. We have people from Providence House that have come and assisted in helping with getting the meals plated and distributed to residents. We’re also, filling a food insecurity in this area. As soon as we open, maybe about 10 or 15 minutes after we start, we’re out of meals. People start gathering 30 to 45 minutes before we are ready to distribute because the demand is so great, but our supplies are just limited.”

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