JUST BEFORE noon, customers start flowing into CocoRay’s in downtown Lawrence. Located in a satellite campus of Northern Essex Community College, the restaurant is frequented by many of the college’s faculty, staff, and students, all looking for the tacos and bowls of steaming rice and beans they have come to love: Mexican dishes simmering with the spices of Puerto Rico.

Ray Gonzalez stands behind the register, while a staff member calls out orders to his mother, Coco, who shares the name of his business.

“She’s the one who preps and cooks,” he says. “She’s the one behind all the flavors here.”

Gonzalez is the first restaurateur in the Revolving Test Kitchen, a restaurant incubator that helps promising entrepreneurs get off the ground in an industry known for sinking them.

The idea is to give people with relatively little experience but lots of raw talent the space to test their recipes, hone their skills, and build a customer base so they can successfully launch their own business nearby, stimulating economic development.

While there are a number of culinary incubators around the state, restaurant incubators are a newer concept. There are only three of these projects in different stages of development in Massachusetts, all of them in Gateway Cities. Worcester also has an established restaurant incubator in the DCU Center, the city’s arena and convention center complex. Brockton has studied the concept and is taking initial steps toward the development of a future incubator.

A private-public partnership in Lawrence

Ironically, the space designed to help restaurateurs get off the ground in Lawrence started out as a restaurant that didn’t. A few years back, when Northern Essex Community College developed a satellite campus downtown, Sal Lupoli, the pizzeria owner turned developer, built a restaurant space in one of the buildings, hoping to spur economic development downtown. The restaurant never took off, but Lupoli and other community leaders shared a commitment to helping restaurants flourish downtown. His company donated the entire 350,000 square foot built-out space to be used as a restaurant incubator. The Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK) is a private-public partnership of the Lupoli Companies, the Lawrence Partnership, the community college, and the city.

Since RTK opened late last year, Lupoli has continued to be involved in the project, donating his own time to mentor Gonzalez, and his staff to help market CocoRay’s.

“I remember what it was like to struggle and search for valuable and necessary resources,” said Lupoli who started his first pizzeria in 1990. “Young entrepreneurs face a number of hardships when launching their business. If you want to build a community, you need to work with and support the small entrepreneur.”

The Lawrence Partnership provides technical assistance around business planning and management. The college also provides technical assistance and administers the leasing agreement. Gonzalez is expected to operate his own business out of the space, and he pays a monthly fee for the space as security, which will be paid back to him when he leaves.

Lawrence Partnership Director Derek Mitchell says that the success of the project hinges on finding the right applicant who can remain successful after several months to a year in the incubator.

“There are plenty of people out there with recipes and talent, but they may not be ready yet,” Mitchell said. Before setting up shop in the incubator last year, Gonzalez had already gained solid experience running a food truck in Lawrence. He launched the business several years earlier with a Mexican-based menu that drew heavily on his mother’s recipes from her native Puerto Rico. The business gained a loyal customer base, and he was ready to expand. As Gonzalez looked around at rental spaces in downtown Lawrence, there were few with the necessary build-out that he could afford.

“Nothing caught my eye,” he said. “I thought I would just go back to running the food truck.” At that critical moment, Mitchell’s staff approached him to see if he wanted to apply to be the first restaurant in the incubator. “It was a winning lottery ticket,” Gonzalez said. “I could use a fully built out kitchen, a kitchen that was very high-end, high tech, a really next level kitchen — rent free.”

Gonzalez also gained skills crucial to running the back end of the restaurant business. “A food truck business is mostly cash,” said Mitchell. “Ray had one periodic employee. He did inventory and purchasing once a week. Now, his doors are open 10 hours a day, five days a week. He has four to five staff members. His bookkeeping, inventory, and development of new food products are all much more complex now.” Ready to strike out on his own, Gonzalez says he is actively seeking a new site. This time, he says, he is more confident he can make the transition. “I learned how to write my own business plan, and if the numbers are alright, the Partnership will help me get my first loan and get my first place,” he said. “It’s a pretty awesome deal.”

Worcester’s DCU Center helps budding restaurateurs

Candy Murphy, who operates the eatery, Figs and Pigs, is the first inhabitant of Worcester’s restaurant incubator. Like Gonzalez, she has also built a loyal customer base and is ready to graduate to her own restaurant. Unlike Gonzalez, jumping into the restaurant business is a second career for Murphy. After 20 years of climbing the corporate ladder to a vice presidency at Staples, Murphy decided it was time for a change.

“I wanted to do something that was more expressive of who I am, and I wanted to be a nicer person,” Murphy said. “My friends at work said, ‘but Candy, you’re nice now’, and I’d say, ‘Hmm, no — if I can reduce a grown man with four children to tears in my office, I’m not nice yet.’” Murphy took a buyout from the company, downsized her home, and enrolled in culinary school alongside her daughter. She began developing her own menu of fresh American-style food “cooked with love” as the manager of a restaurant on the Cape.

After that experience, Murphy wanted to open her own restaurant and started scoping out properties in downtown Worcester. She soon discovered there are relatively few units equipped for a restaurant, and building out a property would require a six-figure capital investment she didn’t have.

“It takes two to three years of financial statements before people are even bankable,” said Sandy Dunn, manager of SMG properties, a private company that manages DCU Center operations for the city. “Candy has a lot of talent, and she had some restaurant experience, but the incubator gave her a chance to prove her concept.” The Worcester model works a little differently than Lawrence’s RTK. As an inhabitant of incubator, Figs and Pigs operates as a profit center of the DCU Center’s arena, which is owned by the city but managed by SMG. Several years ago, city leaders took advantage of a state law that allows the city to use occupancy and meals taxes from businesses around the DCU Center for building improvements. They remodeled part of the arena to house a restaurant incubator, serving the DCU Center as well the local economy.

Figs and Pigs serves their fresh, American fare such as sandwiches, burgers, and crab cakes during arena events. The eatery helps the DCU connect to the surrounding downtown community by serving breakfast and lunch. As a profit center of the arena, Murphy receives a salary, and all of her expenses and revenue are part of that budget. The structure gives Murphy the financial freedom to focus on menu development, building a brand, testing their concept, and developing a customer base. Dunn says that restaurateurs graduating from the incubator can choose to either stay in the DCU space and begin paying rent, or leave, taking their menu, website, and customers with them, with the hopes they will relocate to another downtown location.

Murphy has chosen to leave. Like Gonzalez, she is currently looking for a more permanent home for her restaurant, but credits her ability to do so to her experience at the incubator. “My son-in-law likes to say this is like starting a restaurant on training wheels,” she said. “Landlords aren’t so willing to take a risk on someone new, but when I say I have this experience and these customers, they listen now.”

Brockton builds an incubator and community — one step at a time

City officials in Brockton became interested in restaurant incubators as a means to revitalize a downtown area in desperate need of foot traffic and places to eat. Rob May, the city’s director of planning and economic development, says that while the city once had a booming center, now only a handful of restaurants are open for lunch. “A lot of people come in to work for the day and they don’t leave their offices until 5 o’clock,” he says.

Funded by a $50,000 Mass Urban Agenda grant, Brockton commissioned a feasibility study concluding there was significant unmet demand for restaurants downtown, but not enough to justify the $3,000,000 investment in an incubator.

The study found that the higher table turnover for dinner meals would help make restaurants more profitable, but foot traffic is even lighter after 5 p.m. “We first need to change the way people think about downtown Brockton by offering food and entertainment activities,” May said. Music festivals, artist-in-residency programs are the sort of catalysts needed to attract visitors and funders and encourage food trucks and popup retail operations.

My son-in-law likes to say this is like starting a restaurant on training wheels

May sees these smaller steps leading to the investment in a restaurant incubator in several years. City officials envision a food court design with shared kitchen and storage, allowing a number of restaurants to be incubated at the same time. According to May, this design will not only maximize the number of restaurants eventually opening downtown, but also build a sense of community. Food is one of the best ways to break down cultural barriers and get people eating and talking together, he says. Right now, May says there are restaurants catering to ethnic tastes in Brockton, but people who don’t share the cultural backgrounds avoid them because the food is unfamiliar.

“If they’re serving Haitian food in one area and Cape Verdean food in another, you can try a little bit of each,” he said. This allows people to take small steps in getting to know different styles of food, an experience he says is vital to supporting the development of a vibrant downtown with a rich diversity of restaurants serving food from many different cultural origins.