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An Interview with KitchenCru Founder Michael Madigan

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MICHAEL MADIGAN, the highly respected founder of downtown culinary incubator and commercial prep space KitchenCru, has been quietly building a number of successful food startups. Cru, as it is known, provides a well-outfitted kitchen, expert industry guidance, and a fertile environment for intellectual cross-pollination. We spoke recently about his customers, starting a scalable local food business, and his take on future food trends.

MERCURY: What types of customers do you have at KitchenCru?

MICHAEL MADIGAN: A year ago, I would have said bakers, caterers, pastry chefs, and packaged and gourmet food providers. Now, my answer is: Our clients are passionate and dedicated food professionals who have their own ambitions and vision for success, and put in an extraordinary amount of work to realize those dreams and create wonderful food.     

What were you doing before entering the culinary world, and what triggered the transition?

I spent 26 years in the IT business, beginning with IBM, then running my own company. After that long, it just wasn't enjoyable to me anymore, so, I took a year off and decided to reinvent a career that would get me through the next 26 years. Basically, I designed a job for myself that combines what I'm good at with what I love. 

What's driven you to immerse yourself so thoroughly in the culinary world?

I think the single largest influence was moving to Oregon in 1987, just when the food and wine culture was taking off. I got to learn all about winemaking from some of the early producers, and eventually started making wine at home. Same with beer and cheese. I started buying whole animals from farmers and learning how to butcher them, and discovering ways to use all the parts and make them taste good. The late '80s into the '90s was also the renaissance era of Portland restaurants, led by Chris Israel at Zefiro, Greg Higgins, Cory Schreiber at Wildwood, etc. I was inspired by what they were doing, and tried to recreate in some way the quality of food we enjoyed at those restaurants.

Who would you point out as a KitchenCru success story? What were they doing right, and how did their time with Cru and its team help them polish their product for market?

Brazi Bites [a baked Brazilian cheese-bread snack]. Junea and Cameron are a young married couple inspired to create a food product from Brazil, Junea's home country. They started with a great recipe, a strong vision of how they wanted their company to progress, and a solid work ethic that had them working late nights to develop their product and processes. In addition to providing workspace and tools that they might not have had access to otherwise, KitchenCru was able to help them scale their recipe for mass production, promote their product, and help them develop a retail sales channel. We provided them with a venue to sample and sell their product at our events. We introduced them to several wholesale clients. We also leveraged our contacts at Zupan's Markets to get them on the shelves there, which was their second retail account, and first multi-store account. 

Having worked with so many fledgling cooks and food entrepreneurs, what is your advice for someone who wants to start their own boutique food enterprise?

Start with a really good idea, and develop your recipe until you think it's perfect. Then don't be afraid to take it to people who can give honest, critical feedback. Most important, be ready for the incredible amount of time and labor it will take to get your product to market, and the financial and time sacrifices you'll have to make. It takes true passion and dedication to succeed.   

There's plenty of buzz about your latest venture, the Bowery Bagels storefront and market. How does your product differentiate itself? [Note: Bowery will also feature products by Madigan's KitchenCru customers.]

I think most of the buzz has to do with the fact that several hundred people have already tried the bagels at our pop-ups, and they are really, really good. I grew up eating excellent NYC bagels and that's what we're trying to recreate. If I had to boil [!] it down to a single thought, I would say: authenticity.

 

What do you see consumers taking an interest in, food-wise, in the coming years? Any particular ethnicities, fads, must-stock items?

Locally produced, small batch/artisan foods. I think particularly in Oregon, it's a strong marketplace that will only continue to grow. For instance, one of our clients, Jacobsen Salt Company, created a market for a product that didn't exist eight months ago.

From an ethnicity standpoint, I am seeing Indian food producers having great success and growth. Also, Latin American beyond Tex-Mex.

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