The Cook’s Nook: Entrepreneurial Food and Collective Power

Joi Chevalier knows how to create products that sell. While she was writing a dissertation on technology, pedagogy, and British Literature at the University of Texas, Austin and helping to develop some of the first network-based classrooms in the mid-1990s, she was recruited to work at an Austin-based startup.

Her training in humanities prepared her to understand culture and people, using technology in a unique way that led some of her colleagues to call her a “cybersociologist.” For 18 years, she worked for technology companies in product strategy and management, focusing relentlessly on customer experiences and how people use and consume products. After years of working in the industry, she became ill and began to reconsider her health behaviors and the role food played in her life.

New horizons

Working through those issues, Joi saw a new area where her skills and expertise could be useful: Austin’s burgeoning food+tech scene. In particular, Joi wanted to find a way to support traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities in that world while encouraging entrepreneurship and ownership as a key part of financial independence and self-determination. On one hand, she wanted to help people create successful small businesses. But she also wanted to encourage those communities to do what she had done for herself: redefine their relationship with food and enterprise. With those goals in mind, while managing global products and teams during the day, she went to culinary school at night and developed the idea for The Cook’s Nook.

Expanded opportunities

When it opened in 2017, The Cook’s Nook was Austin’s first purpose-built culinary incubator. Today, it remains the only space in the area with the necessary business and production infrastructure for fledgling food entrepreneurs to launch their catering, packaged goods, meal kit, food truck, R&D, and other food service and experiences businesses.

Its commercial kitchen and coworking facility provides shared food production and meeting space to incubate new businesses. By pooling resources, The Cook’s Nook builds collective power among more than 20 member companies by reducing the costly overhead and capital expenses that so often prevent small businesses from “making it.” It’s an important venture, given obstacles those entrepreneurs must overcome. Reliable stats are hard to come by, but the Austin City Council has recognized this struggle by recently approving funding for a study of the disparities that minority- and women-owned businesses face in the local area. Nearly 2/3 of the businesses at The Cook’s Nook are owned and managed by women.

Fresh approaches

The Cook’s Nook draws upon the tech industry’s principles of testing, adapting, and improving upon an initial proposition to help businesses, particularly those owned by women and underserved communities, find their footing more easily.

Joi quickly saw the role her experience in technology could play in the food space. Looking at the changing world of how people consume food, Joi’s experience in product development led her to focus on what she describes as: “the need to disrupt and create an ecosystem, developing products quickly and bringing them to market, very much like the process we have for technology.” Instead of focusing on the traditional brick and mortar restaurant, Joi observes increasing demand for everything from organically-driven CPG ideation to meal kit logistics and entrepreneurial catering startups to private chefs. By identifying these new trends, she’s able to provide the necessary capacity building support to expand the range of opportunities available to members of The Cook’s Nook.

By bringing these entrepreneurs together and supporting them, Joi fosters the sort of collective power that can change a city’s food culture. Her extensive academic and industry experience, mixed with the culinary skills and ambitions of The Cook’s Nook’s members, is a powerful recipe for “refreshing” local food systems.

Ben Thelen
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