The Indianapolis program helps build virtual restaurants

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A new culinary program aims to get more black and Latin American food entrepreneurs to start with virtual restaurants.

The Melon Kitchen Food Entrepreneurship Accelerator will support the delivery-oriented companies with a ghost kitchen from the 40,000 square meter AMP food hall in the 16 Tech Innovation District. The food hall is slated to open by March 2021, but the accelerator will start in mid-January.

The free three-month program provides training for the new businesses, pays license and formation fees, and gives chefs the opportunity to develop, test, and sell food. Each cohort will have five to seven participants who will be guided through the classes virtually and will be eligible for seed funding upon completion.

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It’s an initiative by the Indianapolis-based Be Nimble Foundation that focuses on bringing more black and Latin American chefs into the tech ecosystem through support for startups and entrepreneurship, as well as career and placement programs.

Virtual restaurants operate exclusively by phone and online ordering, take-out service and delivery. Those who work for the melon ghost kitchen use DoorDash for delivery.

Ghost kitchens are facilities used to prepare food for restaurants that are operated exclusively via online, mobile app or phone orders.

The Melon Kitchen Food Entrepreneurship Accelerator will operate a ghost kitchen in 16 Tech's AMP Food Hall.

The virtual model, which required smaller physical spaces and staff than traditional restaurants, had grown in recent years, but the coronavirus pandemic and increasing reliance on food delivery increased its prevalence.

Be Nimble has been on the program for about two years, said co-founder and co-CEO Kelli Jones.

“With delivery as the mainstay, we saw this as an opportunity for restaurants to bring a brand to market that was pandemic-proof,” said Jones. “We are focused on developing a truly unique concept that can be created in any location with little to no effort and that is also capable of growing and scaling and implementing it in other locations with little to no effort to become.”

The pandemic hit many small operators unable to switch to delivery or take online orders and some missed potential orders through unsupervised social media accounts, program director Jazmine Long said.

“When the restaurant industry kept hit and the black-owned Aunt and Emma restaurants hit time and time again, it was like ‘OK, we have to do something,'” Long said.

Just before COVID-19 forced its suspension, Long had been working through her Savor 317 series of events to host monthly seven-course dinner parties with independent chefs where they could show their skills and make money.

While the idea is to use technology to keep chefs focused on cooking, Melon is helping to drive the development of new foods for consumers.

The participants do not have to be bound by a concept. Menu development doesn’t come until the second part of the program, where chefs experiment with products and test packaging to maintain quality during transit while learning the basics of business.

“We’re giving them tools to change quickly when it doesn’t work and to see if they can switch to something else without getting out of their pockets first and scoring a hit in their capital,” said Long.

Community and project leaders attend a ribbon cutting ceremony for Innovation Building 1 in the developing 16 Tech Innovation District in near west Indianapolis on August 4th.

Applications are open to the first session and to slotting participants in later cohorts.

Ideal candidates are food business owners such as chefs, restaurateurs and caterers who want to discover products that can be prepared quickly in a small space. Participants only pay for food that is specific to their menu.

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The program is funded by grants – the 16 Tech Community Investment Fund has awarded the Be Nimble Foundation $ 40,000 for the launch of the accelerator – and advises executives from ClusterTruck, Fishers Test Kitchen, and Pinnacle Catering Group.

While the 16 tech area will be the flagship of the training center, Melon is working with other ghost kitchens in Indianapolis to provide multiple jobs to graduates and plans to work with local restaurants to provide prep facilities.

“Not only can this help restaurants recover, but current restaurants may struggle to generate another source of income,” said Jones, who is also a managing partner at Sixty8 Capital, a Black venture capital fund. provides start-up capital for startups with Black, Latinx, women and LGBTQ +.

Contact IndyStar reporter Cheryl V. Jackson at [email protected] or 317-444-6264. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylvjackson.