Chefs turn to Secret Garden incubator to cook up more business

I’m not a vegan, nowhere near being so, but I have a vegan sampler plate in front of me and I am about to dig in, more curious than hungry, on this particular afternoon.

The vegan selection, though, is only one slice of the story at the Secret Garden Cafe, which is part community food pantry, part nutrition education center and part culinary incubator.

It’s the last piece — the culinary incubator to assist chefs and restaurateurs develop their art, craft and business — that peaked my interest in this East Boynton eatery, urban farm, referral service, green market and more.

Restaurants, dining and food are big business in Palm Beach County. On, news about restaurant openings and closings, as well as reviews and inspection reports, rank among the biggest audience-grabbing topics.

The Secret Garden’s incubator offers free, grant-funded help with social media and business development programs. And, for $150 a month, chefs get kitchen time one day a week to experiment, broaden menus and test recipes. And who are these chefs?

A food truck operator testing new recipes. A chef developing sauces. A baker transitioning to gluten-free.

“We give them the opportunity to grow and develop,” said Sherry Johnson, Secret Garden’s executive director.

One participant is Amy Robinson of Amy’s Lil Chunks of Love, a baked goods business in Delray Beach. Robinson started her business about three years ago, and has been at the incubator for the past two years. In addition to helping her transition to gluten-free, the incubator has also helped her get certified as a food manager and food handler.

“We were operating to begin with in our kitchen. The only way for us to grow was to be able to get access to commercial space,” said Robinson. “At Secret Garden we got the commercial space but also the education and the other benefits.”

Another chef, Andre Lewis of Andre Gourmet Sauce Co. in West Palm Beach, said Secret Garden was a testing ground for his BBQ and hot sauces.

“It gave me a place — that was fairly inexpensive — where I could test my products and see if they would do well in their marketplace,” he said.

That said, the Secret Garden has also gained traction in the community with a meals program for low-income seniors and a nutrition education approach for schoolkids. And as is the case with most businesses, its various, seemingly disparate ventures and interests converge to complement each other.

And, to serve a cause. No, not veganism, but rather, better nutrition in general.

What you eat is your choice, said Nina Kauder, who handles marketing duties at Secret Garden, but you need to have some fruits or vegetables — and they can be just as tasty.

“We try to promote healthier eating,” she said. “Who better to learn how to love vegetables than from the people who love them?”

So, about my vegan sampler that included a ceviche made of fruits, white bean hummus, stuffed mushroom, broccoli slaw and tofu scampi.

It was tasty. It won’t replace a rib eye or a sirloin on my menu, but, yes, I would add any of these as a side to a slab of baby backs.

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