Meet Chattanooga’s Kitchen Incubator Entrepreneurs

Stephanie Steiman parks her vintage horse trailer under a tree next to purple rows of lavender, as fiddles and folk music play through a nearby speaker at Lookout Lavender Farm.

She founded award-winning beverage company, Chei-Man Tea — and has recently expanded her business to include a mobile, sober bar offering a wide selection of hot and cold teas, coffees, instant mix and seasonal beverages.

On most weekdays from 8 am to 2 pm, Steiman serves hot and cold beverages from her horse trailer turned mobile bar at the Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga. Today, the lavender farm is hosting an event — and guests are thirsty.

Image courtesy of Jared Scott Photography and Chei-Man Tea

Steiman offers me a cold beverage before sitting down under the shade to talk — a blueberry, lavender lemonade that’s a welcome refreshment.

She began her small business in 2018 after becoming a single mother trying to generate enough income for herself and four kids — three of whom were about to enter college.

For years, Steiman has blended her original chai latte recipe, by hand in small batches — sealing it in mason jars to hand out to family, friends and schoolteachers during holidays. The teas were huge among her circle of friends who encouraged her to go into business. Late one night, she saw an ad on Instagram highlighting LAUNCH Chattanooga’s 10-week entrepreneurship program and decided to take a leap of faith.

“I called and said, ‘I have a recipe, I don’t know how to get it past my circle of friends.’ And they said, ‘Take the class.’ I entered a cohort of about 12 other people with no idea of what to expect. I had been a stay-at-home mom at this point for a number of years,” says Steiman.

“LAUNCH helped me come up with a plan and find who my customer was and where I wanted to take it… there were all these things they helped me through,” says Steiman.

Steiman debuted her business at the Chattanooga Market on Father’s Day weekend 2018. She sold out of product on opening day and would continue to consistently sell out of her signature chai latte mix.

Image courtesy of Jared Scott Photography and Chei-Man Tea

Local companies began carrying her product and in 2019 Steiman moved into a commercial kitchen. When the pandemic hit and commercial kitchens closed, Steiman was left with few options to continue operations. That’s when Hal Bowling, executive director, LAUNCH reached out and offered to move Chei-Man Tea into the newly acquired Kitchen Incubator. Steiman has operated there ever since.

“LAUNCH has been so supportive in so many ways. They believed in me which was really important starting out… I was going through a very difficult time in my life and didn’t know where I was going to go – didn’t know how I was going to support myself or and my kids — and they steered me in directions I could never go on my own,” says Steiman.

Steiman now works full time at the Kitchen Incubator and employs Erika and Ben, her children. Her prepackaged products are found in approximately 40 stores, restaurants and coffee shops across town which she’s looking to expand to 100 stores in three to five years. She says the secret to brewing great tea is to boil your water and stirring consistently.

Stephanie, Ben and Erika Steiman; Image courtesy of Jared Scott Photography and Chei-Man Tea

She is one of 20 entrepreneurs operating out of LAUNCH’s Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga — a 10,000 square-foot facility that provides commercial kitchen space at subsidized rates for entrepreneurs looking to enter the food and beverage industry.

The incubator is equipped with five manufactured good spaces, six bakery stations, eight commercial kitchen stations, dry and refrigerated storage, and a food truck commissary.

Walking through the kitchen incubator feels like entering a well-run restaurant prepping for its dinner rush. Cumin, mint, oregano and other herbs and spices line the prep stations where raw material will soon transform into pulled-pork sandwiches, stuffed turkey legs, smoked ham and other mouth-watering plates. Pots and pans of different sizes line the walls at arm’s reach of each chef present. If cooking is a science, this kitchen is the lab.

Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga

In the bakery, the smell of dough brings the promise of bread, pies and pastries. Commercial ovens, mixers and other large appliances line the walls – everything a baker needs.

The refrigerator, freezer and cold storage areas hold neatly packaged meats and other perishables. Each storage area is clearly separated, and the food safety rating of every business is prominently displayed. Other storage rooms house kettles for brewing tea and barrels for fermenting kombucha.

Following LAUNCH’s mission of empowering underrepresented communities, 53% of kitchen incubator businesses are Black-owned and 65% of businesses are women-owned.

As of this article, the incubator has launched a little over 450 businesses, 81% of which are still operating, helping create over 586 jobs and training nearly 1,000 high school students.

“What sets us apart from others is we want as many people as possible to come and start their idea. We offer on-site business support and training to help any business get all the licensing requirements and regulations they need to start their business,” says Mark Holland, director,
Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga.

LAUNCH acquired the space, classrooms and equipment for the incubator from Virginia College of Chattanooga in 2019. During the pandemic’s height, the Kitchen Incubator was called upon to feed senior citizens and food-insecure members of our community. Through LAUNCH’s Provisions Project, the incubator delivered nearly 80,000 meals across Chattanooga while keeping nine companies in business through 2020.

Mark Holland at the Kitchen Incubator

The incubator housed its first official tenants, events and classes in 2021 — when the height of the pandemic had passed. Among the Kitchen Incubator’s original five tenants is Terence Locke, chef and founder, Chef Express — a full service catering company with a mission of impacting communities.

Locke learned the art of cooking from his uncle Leon Rice, culinary arts teacher, Brainerd High School. He honed his craft preparing pastas, sandwiches and other offerings at the student-run Brainerd Bistro — a Future Ready Institute program.

After graduating in 2010, Locke took a job in the service industry assisting patients with mental health disorders, but he still felt the pull toward entrepreneurship. Locke worked multiple minimum wage jobs to support himself and his young son. He bought a grill and began cooking meals for his coworkers — posting these and other dishes on social media. Motivated by the hundreds of likes garnered, Locke decided to launch a micro business selling meals out of his home kitchen. He sold his first dish in 2015.

Terence Locke; image courtesy of Kris Hacker and Chef Express

“I did smoked chicken, baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw,” says Locke. “I made about $800 the first day I sold some food. I probably spent about $300, so about $500 in profit — I never forgot those numbers. I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is it.’”

Locke was invited to a networking event hosted by LAUNCH and the Business Development Center where he was introduced to the Kitchen Incubator.

“Being able to come into [the Kitchen Incubator], I feel like my business has excelled. I’m able to pick up particular jobs that I wouldn’t be able to do at capacity at home. Plus, I’m more legit and preparing food in a much, much safer environment,” says Locke.

Locke now operates a catering company and food truck backed by a growing team of servers, bartenders and cooks offering homestyle, American soul cuisine. Some 90% of Chef Express staff members come from Locke’s bistro days at Brainerd High.

Apart from running a successful Black-owned business, Locke also directs the Pots and Tots program, promoting home economics, reading, writing and math to children ages 8 to 12. In late 2019, Locke self-published his first illustrated children’s book titled “Daddy, What You Cooking?” — a heartwarming story about a Black father bonding with his son through a love of cooking. He also plays an important role recruiting micro businesses into the Kitchen Incubator and promoting its internal culture.

“The food scene here in Chattanooga is 100% growing. There are so many people right now cooking out of their home. And I love it because that’s where I started… These are the people that I’m saying, ‘Hey, I know a beautiful, large kitchen space where you can come and prepare your food,’” says Locke.

In the past, the restaurant industry was defined by images of military-style hierarchies, ego-driven head chefs and cutthroat business practices. There’s little room for these archetypes inside a shared space like the Kitchen Incubator. Holland suggests that by selecting candidates that fit within the incubator’s culture, they create an environment where all businesses can thrive.

“When I sit down [with a new entrepreneur] I explain to them, you’re in a shared space. You’re going to be using the same equipment as the next person,” says Holland.

“Once [entrepreneurs] get in here, they collaborate together, they want to do business together, they want to setup side by side. Most [kitchens] don’t want their competition next to them. But people that come in here and get into our community environment want to help each other out.”

James ‘Pat’ Rowe at the Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga

This collaborative culture is maintained thanks to influencers like James “Pat” Rowe, chef and owner, BBQ Rowe.

“I don’t knock any of the [other] companies. I feel like there’s enough out there for all of us to eat, maintain and survive. But I try to make my experience, my experience. When you come here, whether you get the stuffed turkey legs or the smoked wings, I want you to really feel like: ‘There’s something different about it that makes me want to go back.’ … I’ve been successful, with the help of my team, in creating those experiences,” says Rowe.

Born into a family of cooks, Rowe honed his craft rising through the ranks of Chattanooga’s restaurant industry. On weekends he sent text messages of his personal menu to a network of loyal customers – a marketing practice he holds to this day through a text campaign of over 400 recipients.

With lines of hungry customers forming at his door, Rowe knew it was time to expand. He took LAUNCH’s 10-week entrepreneurship program which gave him the foundation to bring his business into market. He won LAUNCH’s Startup Showdown during Startup Week Chattanooga, 2016 and BBQ Rowe was born.

“LAUNCH was very impactful for me. One of the biggest things that it did was give me another network of potential clients… It opened up a lot of [doors] for me like TV interviews and newspaper articles. It’s cool to see how I’ve progressed,” says Rowe.

Image courtesy of James Rowe

Rowe was brought into the Kitchen Incubator as part of LAUNCH’s pandemic relief program. He now operates one of Chattanooga’s most popular food and catering businesses within the Kitchen Incubator — offering savory brisket, ribs and other flavorful options including his signature stuffed turkey legs. He also has a special events menu for weddings, office meetings, family gatherings and more. Rowe says the secret to making great barbeque is cooking meat “low and slow.”

His dedicated team of cooks and servers deliver quality food and service through pop up locations across Chattanooga. As a Kitchen Incubator manager, Rowe gives back to entrepreneurs through community outreach while supporting incubator businesses with branding, strategy, social media and supply chain solutions.

The Kitchen Incubator is undergoing a remodeling effort that will double its capacity from 20 to 40 entrepreneurs, supporting the incubator’s goal of bringing more diversity into Chattanooga’s growing food industry.

While this was once accomplished through brick-and-mortar stores, food trucks have now become the growing trend within the Kitchen Incubator’s entrepreneurs. Diners can experience these and other offerings during Food Truck Fridays at the incubator’s Eastgate headquarters.

A new food renaissance has landed in Chattanooga — one that places mobility and local businesses at the forefront of dining. If Holland’s vision for the Kitchen Incubator comes to life, the Scenic City may soon become a new food truck capital of the South.

“I would like to see several successful businesses come out of here. I would like to see Chattanooga grow and become a destination for people who want to start their own business,” says Holland.

“That is one of our ultimate goals, that [Chattanooga] becomes a food destination… That is our dream and our hope.”


Learn more about the Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga through LAUNCH’s website at launchchattanooga.org/kic.

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