County Backs Training Center for Restaurant, Hospitality Workers

County Backs Training Center for Restaurant, Hospitality Workers

Funding set aside for private-sector food hall incubator

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Seed money to help establish a nonprofit training center for workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries has been included in the Montgomery County executive’s recommended budget.

A budget line item sets aside $40,740 for a “kitchen incubator,” a food hall comprised of about 20 businesses started by entrepreneurs in the food and craft industry, which is expected to experience workforce growth of 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to federal labor analysts.

The food hall would also implement a yearlong workforce development program for those seeking careers in the hospitality industry and would operate separately from the county’s three tax-supported, technology focused incubator spaces in Rockville, Germantown and Silver Spring.

A company called Montgomery County Food Hall Market Inc, was incorporated in August 2018 and registered to Robert McKay of North Bethesda, according to Maryland business filing records.

The food hall is expected to operate as a nonprofit and has applied for a tax-exempt status from the IRS, said Tina Benjamin, a special projects director in the county executive’s office.

The county funding, if approved, will aid in pre-development and pre-construction efforts, Benjamin said.

“They have a lot of work to do. They have to develop operating budgets, deal with the site selection, do work on the site itself, develop materials, develop a board,” she said.

Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove both offer academic degree programs in hospitality, with culinary skills as a component. The county’s largest private professional school, L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, closed in December 2017 after 41 years.

Sarah Miller, the vice president of strategy for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., said Elrich’s idea differs from the current offerings.

“This is more of a private-sector led training program, so it’s not as academic as the others,” she said.

Miller said she isn’t sure whether the MCEDC will be involved in the efforts of launching the food hall. She said the kitchen incubator will help bolster the county’s hospitality and tourism industry.

“It’s really important not to just focus on the really high-paying jobs, which are important, but we also want to put some resources toward the middle income jobs,” she said.

Questions remain, however, over the term “incubator,” in the description of the program.

According to the program’s description in the budget, the companies are supposed to move from the food hall into the community within three years. But Miller said the term “incubator” is a “misnomer,” and that the facility is meant to be a training center.

Council member Andrew Friedson, a member of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee said that he too has questions about the use of the term “incubator.”

“I see it less as an incubator of creating jobs and growing the economy as its primary function and more as a workforce development in the hospitality industry and a community development to bring all sorts of restaurants and food-based concepts to a community place that would be a desirable location for people to convene,” he said.

Friedson said the food hall concept is a “terrific program,” but noted that the restaurant industry is “a very tough business.” He said he wants more clarity on how the $40,000 will be spent.

“I think the question is, are we determining the feasibility of this type of concept or are we providing seed money to a fully-baked proposal and seeing how it takes off and what it can do for our communities or our county. I think that’s an open question and I’m waiting to hear more from our county executive,” he said.

The council is expected to take final action on Elrich’s proposed $5.7 billion budget later this month.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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