CropCircle Kitchen's Darnell Adams on Incubating Food Entrepreneurs in Jamaica Plain
Bringing a passion for food and systems, CropCircle Kitchen's managing director keeps things running smoothly for the 40 food entrepreneurs sharing the incubator's space.
While home on break from college, Darnell Adams announced one night that she was going to cook dinner. She got out her mother’s old Fannie Farmer Cookbook and started rifling through the freezer and pantry, ultimately producing chicken a la king. Somehow she had internalized how to cook from years of watching her mother in the kitchen. This inaugural dish served as catalyst for a career in the food industry: from a run as a caterer and personal chef to her current job as the managing director for CropCircle Kitchen, an incubator kitchen in Jamaica Plain supporting about 40 entrepreneurs and their culinary ventures.
Through her catering business, Adams was a member of CropCircle Kitchen’s predecessor—Nuestra Culinary Ventures. In May 2010 she segued to a role as a consultant and then to operations manager, following CropCircle’s executive director JD Kemp’s work to keep the incubator’s doors from closing and reincarnate it as CropCircle Kitchen. “I became part of the solution,” she says of working through that transitional period to make the new venture viable.
Adams, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in education and whose resume includes a stint at a startup technology firm in New York City, calls her current post as CropCircle's managing director “somehow the perfect combination of my strange work history.”
On a recent evening at CropCircle, located in the Brewery Complex, Adams sat down to talk about her approach to operations, CropCircle’s hopes to expand, and her latest food obsession.
Under you stewardship, what kind of changes have you made?
The thing about organizations and change, is that they’re often not necessarily broad changes but incremental ones that end up making a really large difference in the end. I think some of it was morale. It was really tough to be in a situation where the kitchen [Nuestra] was closing. . . Some of it was making sure people knew what was happening, being incredibly transparent, so they could actually really settle in and think about growth of business. . . Then for me, it was about figuring out the systems. When are things being cleaned? Who’s cleaning it? I knew cleaners were coming every couple of days but I never saw them. I left a note on their supplies for them to call me so I could find out who they were. Or following the service people through the kitchen. I would ask them about all the things they were doing, why they needed to be done, what was going on with code. While I worked here, I understood how things went but I didn’t know the inner workings or the whole big picture.
CropCircle is committed to the environment, sustainability. Is this something you introduced?
I brought in composting and recycling but I guess I don’t’ really think of it that way. I feel JD and I are on the same page and from the get, and we started talking about those things. What can be done here? Some of it for me was operations. This is how much garbage we’re producing. What can we do with this? Beyond that, a lot of the solutions that end up being green are also good business models. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive at all. I live in JP. JD lives in JP. We care about we’re doing here in JP and also in a more global way. It feels seamless to me. It is what you do because you’re a good neighbor.
What’s in store for CropCircle’s future?
We have hopes to expand next year. Once this place started working in the way it should, we knew that the market could hold more than what’s going on in this space. There are all sorts of things going on that we can’t accommodate. We know the market can hold more space for people who just need incubator space, so there needs to be more incubator space. But there also needs to be space for something in between incubator space and building your own facility. While some businesses are ready to launch and go off in their own space in 6-12 months, some businesses end up staying longer than they wish. Maybe they’re too large for this space but not big enough for their own space. We need some kind of intermediate space that they need to get to the next level. We’re trying to address these things in the new space.
How do you know when it's time for entrepreneurs to leave?
There are different models out there. There are models in which you can have a copacker—basically someone has a facility and they make your product. Whereas a business like Down Home Catering needed kitchen space.
What's CropCircle's business model?
We’re a small business incubating small businesses. All the businesses here are working toward the same goal: to be viable in the marketplace. That requires really taking care of the community and being able to communicate with each other as they share this space. There’s this wealth of information that you couldn’t find in any other place. If you were to go off and have your own space from the get, you would not be surrounded by entrepreneurs every day. Maybe someone is using some packaging that you’ve never seen before that you want to use or they have some solution about how to bottle their hot sauce, or know vendors you didn’t know existed. And CropCircle Kitchen itself is a resource. I’m still amazed by the amount of knowledge sitting in this building.
How would you describe your interest in food these days?
I’m food obsessed, I’m a foodie, I work around food and love food.
What’s your favorite meal now?
It changes but right now, it’s simple: pho. I don’t understand. I want to it eat every day.