Ask any entrepreneur for advice on how to get a business off the ground, and almost all of them will tell you, “You don’t have to do it alone.”
For those just starting out, resources and guidance can make all the difference – and that’s where a business incubator comes in. Providing support such as workspaces, training, administrative services, and financial advice, incubators strive to meet small businesses in the middle, using teamwork to foster growth and success. Here, we shine the spotlight on four local entrepreneurs who are making it happen – and the incubators that have had their backs.
By Anna Hill / Photography by Emily Pérez Long
Kendra and Delaina Elmz, Founders
With Proof Bar + Incubator
For Kendra and Delaina Elmz, founding Poppyton’s Patisserie and Farm together was about chasing a dream. “We often heard stories about folks wanting a better life and stepping away from the ‘rat race’ to go after their dream,” Kendra tells us. “It took us a bit to work up the faith to take the leap, but we did, and we haven’t looked back.”
After years of pursuing careers in other fields, the two decided to create a business where they could oversee the entire process required to make desserts, from the ingredients they choose to a beautiful slice of cake on a plate.
Poppyton’s Patisserie serves a rotating menu of seasonal desserts that are made from scratch – including their doughs, jams, and fillings. “We did have to stop ourselves from churning our own butter, though,” Delaina adds.
They currently fill retail, wholesale, and custom orders, both through Proof Bar + Incubator and via their vintage food truck. One of their goals is to craft menus that are unique as well as inclusive, so that customers with different dietary needs can enjoy their desserts.
According to Kendra, working with Proof has been an invaluable experience. If she and Delaina want someone’s opinion on a recipe that they’re testing, other entrepreneurs from their own industry are just a few steps away. Furthermore, the support they’ve received from Proof has streamlined things that might have taken them more time and resources than they could have spared otherwise. “Not having to research for hours where to go for something or which expert in town is best for a particular insight is beyond timesaving,” shares Kendra. With this kind of support, Kendra and Delaina have time to focus on building their business. This summer, they’re looking forward to getting out in their food truck more often, and right now they are working on new product concepts.
Regarding words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs, Delaina leaves us with this: “Go for it, commit, follow your heart, curate a network of support, and support your network. Be inquisitive, ask questions, and ask for help.”
Kendra and Delaina Elmz
Though Proof Bar + Incubator only officially launched in 2020, it’s an idea that’s been in the works for years. Co-founders Michael Robinson and Mia Littlejohn have been teaching a consumer goods accelerator course for food and beverage entrepreneurs since 2018. Proof was created as an industry resource center that features a shared commercial kitchen, a restaurant residency program, and courses for industry owners and professionals. Last year, they also launched a resiliency program to help independent restaurateurs persevere through the difficulties of the pandemic.
If an aspiring entrepreneur is interested in working with Proof, applications for their variety of courses can be found on their website. “Food and beverage is an industry for creatives, and we’re constantly excited to see what our clients are cooking, baking, or producing. It’s incredibly satisfying to see someone you’ve worked with grow and succeed,” says Littlejohn. “We want to see our clients succeed and grow their business and also find a sustainable way to run their business. Entrepreneurs often struggle with balance, and we try to provide as many tools and resources as possible to help our clients increase their profitability and streamline their business operations.”
Richard Carmack, President
In 2005, Richard Carmack teamed up with Ryan Johnson to fill orders for Ryan’s Eagle Talon tactical tomahawks used by troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The demand was higher than they’d expected. “We were facing a three-month backorder, purely doing business by word of mouth,” Carmack, now the company president, tells us. And since then, business hasn’t slowed down – far from it. “I think that when we reached the point of six months of backorder, we realized that we were really making it. There were only four members of our team at that point, but we knew that the business was viable then.”
RMJ Tactical now manufactures products such as multi-tools, knives, flashlights, and axes for a variety of customers: those who seek gear for tactical purposes, such as soldiers and outdoor adventurers, and those who are looking for high-quality historical weapon reproductions.
“Something we love about the business we do is bringing joy to our customers,” Carmack explains. For example, one of the popular items manufactured by RMJ is “Snuggles,” a war hammer tool named after a childhood teddy bear – the title of which regularly sends grown men into fits of laughter.
Though RMJ has graduated from the INCubator and now has a production warehouse of its own, Carmack is deeply grateful for the time they spent there. “The INCubator was a safe, supporting environment that allowed us to perfect our craft,” he says. “The opportunity to develop and share ideas there with other likeminded people was invaluable.”
Now, looking to the future, RMJ hopes to expand their manufacturing capabilities even more. “Our goal is to develop world-class production to match our world-class tools,” shares Carmack.
As for advice to entrepreneurs looking to make it in the business world, Carmack leaves us with these words: “While you should expect to succeed, learning from failure is a must. Draw wide inspiration from the world around you. Find a mentor and listen, even if you don’t agree.”
With over 127,000 square feet of startup support, the INCubator at the Hamilton County Business Development Center is a mixed-use business incubator that can support manufacturers and startups of all sizes. Founded in 1988, it offers a community of support for its clients and provides a three-year development program for small companies looking to grow. “Our goal is to help clients develop their strategic vision, stabilize their business, and increase visibility,” says Victoria Baltz, the INCubator’s resource coordinator. “We want to foster a supportive culture where they can create relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and strategic partners.”
If someone is interested in working with the INCubator, they are asked to pitch their business to an acceptance committee, and from there, they’ll be given a tour of the office and spaces available for them to use to develop and grow their business. Whatever someone might be looking for, everyone at the INCubator is there to help and rooting for their clients’ success. “I enjoy listening to everyone’s journeys,” Baltz shares. “I love helping them problem-solve issues, ranging from finding talent to creating supportive programs.”
Sharon Green, Founder
Sharon Green never expected her first business to be a cleaning business. “My friend Amanda, who is a VP at a property management company, called me and asked if I knew anyone with a cleaning company for some dorm flips they had coming up,” Green shares. “I jokingly asked how much and said, ‘Yes, I know someone.’” The next thing she knew, she was signing a contract. While she initially just intended for it to be part-time work, it quickly took on a life of its own, and her cleaning company was born.
Today, The Professional Cleaning Solution is a full cleaning service that offers residential cleaning to homeowners as well as property management companies. “We currently service over 25 property management companies for move-in/move-out cleanings,” says Green. “We also offer janitorial services for our commercial clients daily, weekly, or monthly.”
As the business grew, Green says she had that first “Hey, I made it!” moment when she hit 30 employees and contractors and wasn’t stressed about payroll. “I won’t lie – in the beginning, there were some rocky times, but when that moment hit, I knew I had made it. Being able to contribute to 30 people and their families was an amazing feeling.”
Looking back, Green is grateful for the connection she made with CO.LAB. “The support they offer is what every startup needs,” she explains. Weekly calls with their team helped Green stay on her toes when it came to marketing her business. Her time with CO.LAB was a great experience.
Regarding moving forward, Green says, “I want it to be all about education and pouring into others while growing my business.” She currently has a book and workshops in the development stages, and she’s also looking into franchising.
When it comes to advice that she would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Green says this: “Network and ask questions. There will be mistakes – that’s part of life. Stay the course. Just remember to fail up.”
A nonprofit accelerator, The Company Lab (CO.LAB) launched in 2010 with the goal of further developing Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial programs through mentorship and other services. CO.LAB supports entrepreneurs who are looking to grow. “We want to offer as many resources as we can for our entrepreneurs to step into their dream,” Katie Hendrix, CO.LAB’s chief of staff, explains. “We hope to build their confidence, grow their capacity and their customers, and increase their capital. We want them to be successful!”
For entrepreneurs looking to get involved with what CO.LAB offers, they can sign up for a “wayfinding” meeting online to speak with a team member about the best fit for next steps. Many of CO.LAB’s services are free, and Hendrix and her fellow team members often help their entrepreneurs find resources or capital that they might not have been able to access otherwise. “I love that I get to help an entrepreneur find access to something like this that can make all the difference in their journey,” Hendrix tells us. “Being able to move forward from an idea on a napkin to generating revenue is a lot of steps, and if I have the chance to play a small part in their journey, it’s amazing and quite humbling.”
Terence Locke Sr., Founder
With LAUNCH Chattanooga Kitchen Incubator
Terence Locke has always loved to cook, and his catering business started out small. “In 2015, we started cooking meals out of our home and serving them to friends and family, then eventually to small businesses,” he tells us. Their first big catering opportunity came from a couple who’d eaten their meals during lunch and then asked them to cater their wedding. “At that moment, I knew I had something good going. I thought, wow, someone trusts us with such a special and intimate day. That’s always a privilege,” remembers Locke.
Ever since then, his business, Chef Express, has been growing. The catering company offers fresh American-style cuisine, as well as bartending services, for any event. Recently, Chef Express has expanded with its first mobile food truck, which offers a rotating menu throughout the week. Furthermore, cooking has also inspired him to reach out to the community beyond the kitchen. His children’s book, Daddy, What You Cooking?, was written to illustrate a father and his son making dinner together in the kitchen. “I’m trying to change the narrative of absent fathers while using culinary arts to bring a family night together with a great dish,” Locke says.
Regarding his experience working with LAUNCH’s kitchen incubator, Locke calls it “life-changing.” “The space, the resources, and the opportunities they offer are endless,” he says. “With commercial tools, my cook time has gone down tremendously.”
When it comes to the future of his business, Locke says that he hopes to make his family proud and to support his son and provide him with a good place in life as he gets older. “I take nothing for granted,” he shares.
When asked to give advice to entrepreneurs looking to get their start, Locke says, “Don’t procrastinate. It doesn’t matter if someone is already doing what you’re interested in – there are many brands of bread down an aisle for a reason. Always be creative, never be afraid to make a change, and support others without looking for something in return.”
Founded in 2011 with the intention of facilitating greater diversity and inclusion in Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial scene, LAUNCH is a support organization that offers various resources, coaching, and support to new and practicing entrepreneurs. Of all the businesses they’ve worked with, 65% of them are women-owned, and 75% are minority-owned. They run a variety of programs, including one that introduces high school students to entrepreneurship, as well as a kitchen incubator that provides space for aspiring entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry.
To get started with LAUNCH, entrepreneurs can enroll in a 10-week class, which is often followed by coaching to help someone get their business off the ground. “We want to see anyone with a dream be able to realize it and find support from our community,” says Hal Bowling, LAUNCH’s executive director. “We want the businesses we work with to have every chance of success, so we look for any connections we can make. We try to make sure that everyone we work with has a thorough understanding of the resources available to them in our community and is connected so that they can access those resources when they need them.”