On a Friday afternoon in the heart of Northern Essex Community College’s urban Lawrence campus, El Encanto restaurant is doing a brisk lunchtime business. Students wearing backpacks and women in business attire fill the tables, their plates boasting authentic Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo, a green plantain dish. The restaurant is light and bright, with comfortable upholstered chairs and a sleek, modern décor.
Across town the next day, another restaurant, CocoRay’s, is even busier, serving up tacos, smoothies, salads, soups, and Puerto Rican fare like pernil al horno (roasted pork shoulder) in a cozy, modern-looking space. As a taco order comes up, the owner, Ray Gonzalez, offers his signature sauces to go with it, a mild green one and a red one, along with a disclaimer that the red one is super-hot. “I warned you once,” he says with a mischievous smile.
The red sauce is hot in every way—fiery and delicious—and so is CocoRay’s, which opened in May 2018. Although CocoRay’s and El Encanto appear, at first glance, to have little in common aside from their Lawrence ZIP codes and friendly owners, they’re both part of the Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK), a business incubator and restaurant popup on Northern Essex’s Lawrence campus.
The RTK is a revolving that is, regularly changing restaurant that gives restaurant entrepreneurs a chance to test out their business ventures in a high-end space that’s provided rent-free, while also contributing to Lawrence’s economic development. The RTK hosts each restaurant startup for roughly a year at a time, during which the entrepreneurs learn the ropes of the restaurant business, establish a customer base, and test out their business plans.
A “Golden Ticket”
“It’s a golden ticket because there are so many budding food entrepreneurs. But to really test out a product, there’s a lot of barriers to entry,” says Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, a public-private partnership for economic development in and around Lawrence. “They might have ideas, but they might not always have the assets. This is really a launching pad.”
Gonzalez was the RTK’s first graduate, and after finishing his stint there, he opened CocoRay’s at a permanent location on Parker Street in Lawrence earlier this year. The RTK’s current resident is owner Danny Torres. His restaurant, El Encanto, has been open there since late February. At press time, applications were being accepted for the RTK’s third iteration.
Torres says he’s been cooking for 11 years, and was trying to get a food truck going when he heard about the RTK opportunity. Because of his experience at El Encanto, he’s now leaning toward wholesaling his food products. “I can say that if it wasn’t for the RTK, I might not have been in the steps of trying to do the wholesale business,” Torres says. “If it wasn’t for this project, I wouldn’t have learned the stuff that I’ve learned, I wouldn’t have visualized other projects, other plans. It gave me the experience of running a business.”
A Collaborative Vision
The RTK is a collaboration between Northern Essex Community College, Lupoli Companies, the city of Lawrence, and The Lawrence Partnership. “The Revolving Test Kitchen came from an idea I had about creating a restaurant incubator that would assist food entrepreneurs and serve the community,” says Sal Lupoli, president and CEO of Lupoli Companies. “We had the existing space at NECC on Common Street in Lawrence, and I donated more than $300,000 in equipment, furniture, and fixtures, whatever was necessary to help a restaurant get up and running.”
Northern Essex Community College provides the space rent-free and also provides a built-in customer base of students and faculty, in addition to the residents and people doing business in that neighborhood, while The Lawrence Partnership acts as the program facilitator and coordinator. RTK businesses also receive support, mentoring, and technical assistance.
“It can be a very overwhelming process for a young entrepreneur. When I first opened Sal’s Pizza in 1990, there was so much to think about, from location to financing to marketing to inventory,” Lupoli says. “The RTK program guides local chefs through the many pitfalls of new business ownership with trusted advice from industry experts. We work hand in hand with them every step of the way to ensure the best possible transition from pop-up restaurant to permanent location.”
The competitive application process considers not only the entrepreneur’s business idea and culinary talent, but also whether they have a solid business plan and the drive to succeed. Lupoli also considers whether the applicant has a supportive family, as well as that intangible “something” that makes a great entrepreneur. “Another important trait can’t really be defined but is something that is innate—it is a hunger to succeed and the conviction and determination to never look back,” he says. “When I first met Ray and Danny, I knew they shared this unique quality and that they would become successful business owners.”
Although the RTK program provides the space and support, success and growth are really up to the business
owners themselves. “That’s what being entrepreneurial is all about,” says Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College.
Strong Business, Strong Community
Success for the program also spells success for the city of Lawrence, which is another prong of the RTK. As Mitchell says, “Successful businesses make for successful communities.”
“When you can develop a program that continually cycles business after business with the goal of helping each one grow and prosper, that is truly impactful,” Lupoli says. “And the RTK also adds significant value to Lawrence’s economic development and entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Glenn echoes that sentiment, adding that the RTK has created buzz on the Lawrence campus, both for the restaurants that have already been there and for what will come next. The RTK partnership taps into residents’ talents, creates jobs, and plants the seeds for new permanent businesses, like CocoRay’s.
“We think it’s important that we help grow the economy in the city where our Lawrence campus is,” says Glenn. “What we really want is entrepreneurs who see a vision for their craft and how they can contribute to the community.”