Apple PodcastsAmazon MusicSpotifyiHeartRadioPlayer.fmGoogle Podcasts

In this episode of the Spilled Salt podcast, Rhonda Destino, Executive Director of The Commissary in Rochester, NY, shares her entrepreneurial journey from community advocacy to food ventures. She discusses the Commissary’s role within the local community, fostering collaboration among new entrepreneurs, and overcoming funding challenges.

Beginning with a background in political science and public communication, Rhonda’s career evolved from advocacy in Washington, D.C., to impactful work with municipalities. Returning to Upstate New York, her love for food deepened, leading to a stint with a food truck and catering business.

Rhonda’s pivot to the Rochester Commissary was fostered by a passion for telling stories and creating impact for local businesses and community partners. 

In her conversation with Maureen, she emphasizes the importance of municipal work, citing firsthand experience in navigating local government intricacies.

The Rochester Commissary, situated in the historic Sibley building, serves as a shared kitchen incubator. Rhonda highlights its significance in downtown Rochester’s revitalization, offering a platform for local businesses to thrive.

Addressing the challenges of grant funding, Rhonda dispels misconceptions, emphasizing the need for strategic planning and patience. She underlines the Commissary’s commitment to supporting minority-owned businesses and fostering collaborations among members.

Rhonda also discusses the micro-market within the Commissary, creating a space for members to sell their products. She shares plans for showcasing member products in local grocery stores, expanding their reach.

With diverse programming and educational opportunities, Rhonda encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to explore the resources offered by the Rochester Commissary. She welcomes inquiries, offering guidance to those navigating the complex landscape of the food and beverage industry.

In conclusion, Rhonda’s journey reflects resilience, community impact, and a passion for empowering local entrepreneurs. The Rochester Commissary stands as a beacon, fostering innovation and collaboration in the heart of Upstate New York.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage and agriculture industries. This is our last episode from season three of the Spilled Salt podcast. And I am so excited to round out this season’s guests with Rhonda Destino. 

According to her LinkedIn profile, she’s an inspired working mom. I would say that that’s definitely one of the many hats that this woman wears. She is also a passionate community advocate, a former food truck business owner, an expert in grants and community impact and food, as well.

 Our conversation today is about all of those things and kind of where they intersect in some really interesting ways. Towards the end of our chat, we also got into a really important discussion about the grants landscape and some things to know, especially for early stage startup food and beverage companies that are looking for very early stage funding and the “need-to-knows” as it relates to going down that path. Enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: I’m so glad to chat with you today. Thanks for joining me for the podcast.

Rhonda Destino: Thanks for having me. I was so excited. I am an avid listener, so thank you so much.

Maureen: Love it, that’s great. If there’s any point to make reference to a prior episode to do that, like if there’s anything that you’re talking about, because I know that we’ve had some folks that you know as previous guests on the podcast, too. 

I always love to start with a little bit of background and especially for you with your experience ranging from nonprofits to municipalities, and now in food.

Give us a little bit of a foundational baseline, talk through your early work for us going all the way back to your early career work with child advocacy.

Rhonda: Absolutely. It all kind of sums up into communication. I love to share the stories that folks have on the ground. My undergrad work was political science and public communication right at SUNY Brockport. And then I graduated and went to the nation’s capital. 

I started my career there in advocacy using politics and communication and did graduate work at American University and really kind of found that I loved the community impact that my work could have. 

Of course, a lot of folks were gearing the degree towards the next step of law school or the next step to run a political campaign. And I said, I really enjoy that kind of middle ground of sharing the people’s story on Capitol Hill and of course, in state government and local government, which I found to be extremely important to the process.  

Flash forward, I found myself missing the Upstate New York appeal. Of course, when we’re all young, we think, “I gotta get out of here, this is not for me”. 

I grew up in Wayne County and now really, really respect the foundation that I had and the experiences that I now can connect. In a previous job, I was able to work with the municipalities that I grew up living in and saw the changes not only that were occurring, but that I could assist with. 

And somewhere along the way, obviously I love food and I love to enjoy what the Finger Lakes and Upstate have to offer when it comes to beverages. I met my now spouse who is a chef by trade. 

I fell in love with all facets of the start of a business, a food business. And then what does that look like connecting other community partners when it’s a food related mission? 

We had a food truck and catering business, and sold it a few years ago. As many recall, there was a pandemic that made the food industry look scary. I was expecting at the time and my very pregnant self said, I think we need to pause. 

We sold the truck. I had started working in nonprofits many years ago and had different connections along the way that have brought me to today where my parent organization leader, the RDDC leader, Gail, says you’re quite a unicorn. 

When she met me I had nonprofit experience and leadership, as well as all of the other really random things that you need to do to run something like a shared kitchen incubator space.  

I’ve been here since the end of May at the Rochester Commissary

That’s a short line of my history of how it all connects, but it does really connect to sharing the stories of whoever I’m working with and drawing in the community to be those helpful partners.  We do that every day at the Rochester Commissary. 

I couldn’t do it without folks that obviously you connect with every day. But that is where it came from and how it got here.

Maureen: I love something that you said, connecting community partners through food and beverage being something that you loved doing while you were doing the food truck. It relates so well to what you’re doing now. I think there’s been a lot of guests on the podcast that are working in upstate New York, greater Finger Lakes, and the food and beverage ecosystem. And there’s this thread of collaboration and community.

You said you loved community impact as being one of the things that brought you into the work that you’re doing.  I want to focus just briefly on your work with municipalities and local governments. I think that that especially, like you said, you are a unicorn for the role that you have and the experience that you bring to the table. What about that work was meaningful for you in terms of your municipal and community work from that angle?

Rhonda: Oh, it’s incredible. I could share many, many examples about how knowing your local government really is so impactful to your day-to-day. Obviously,  national things get attention, statewide things get attention, but what is happening in your own town or city? And then what’s happening in your county? 

I think that so often those things can be overlooked and the degree of importance is so high when even talking to folks about the Commissary. We’re reminded this is not in New York State very frequently, the shared kitchen opportunity. 

I came in after the build, so I feel very lucky. That was quite a gift because there was a lot of political conversation and things that needed to happen because of the regulatory side and where we are in food and beverage here. 

I do think that I was able to have that experience of a couple of decades worth of either going to city council meetings very often and then talking and following up with city officials, but also just navigating where that comes from, having a start.

I’m able to do that for my own community. My neighborhood is very important to me. 

I worked for several years in the city of Geneva on their neighborhood initiatives. That’s obviously how I got to know wonderful people like yourself. And that’s how you get things really accomplished as a community.  

There could be a law or regulation out there, but how does that feel on the ground? How does that work to accelerate anything that we’re trying to do? It could be building a park versus getting small businesses into our area, attracting businesses into our area. And how do we do that?  That’s the variety of municipal work that I did.

It’s crucial to my day-to-day. We have a neighborhood concern at the moment and people were literally finding me at the mailbox. They were saying, I know you know how to do this. How can we figure this out? 

I love to be that person. It really is just so nice being able to share people’s experience. And if I can help them navigate the path to something that works out well for them in the community or community as a whole. I mean, that type of energy, I never mind being at a meeting or I never mind being the person that is at the podium. I am happy to be that role for folks.  

That’s really the connective tissue, I think, in anything that we’re trying to do. Food and beverage for sure, but anything that I’ve worked on, I have felt that same energy and spirit around.

Maureen: I think that when you seek positivity and when you exude positivity, it finds you. You can inject it into any scenario because I think that you can just as easily go the other direction with it, right? To have a negative attitude about your local government and that kind of thing. But when you think of it as what’s possible and how can I attract more small businesses to my region, what’s needed from a resource component.

Going back to your work in Geneva, which I’m sure you’re applying the same concept to the Commissary. What are the resources that are needed to help this community, either people that live here, people who come here to incubate their businesses? What’s going to help them succeed?

Rhonda: 100% and we have so many good partnerships. I walked into Rochester, which is such a great resource city and I had not done a lot of focused work within Rochester. Definitely in Monroe County and in the Finger Lakes and I’ve been welcomed in every room that I’ve been to on behalf of the Commissary. 

In general, the members have blazed this path for me to be able to be effective in rooms. I don’t have to share who we are very often. I share how we’re going to move businesses forward or a specific member business forward and think creatively in that way. But absolutely, as folks hear from me, they kind of understand that I know where they’re coming from. Especially if it’s a small business owner, I get it.

If it’s somebody working for the city government, I get it. And so I think that’s really been so nice to be able to personalize it with just that understanding. We’re all working towards the same goal.  

In a lot of ways that’s made my job very easy because those things were already there within myself and experience, but also within this organization. It’s incredible. And our membership, their passion, it’s hard not to be positive around our members, even on those hard days as small business owners when they’re exhausted. They’re trying to do so much on their own, but their passion and obviously their food or beverage is amazing. We’re really allowing them to tell their story in as many ways that we can. It’s something that keeps that energy going.

We teach a lot of our educational pieces at night. And that perseverance is one of the things that’s so apparent. 

I hear them as they come into a session or I hear them when they come into a workshop. They’ve been up all day. They’re exhausted. They have a million other places they could be. They have kiddos at home that it’s almost time to read that bedtime story. And they’re here and they’re giving that energy. 

One thing that I always say is that I try not to be too real, but not too trite either. I try for that balance of, hey, when you’re working on your small business in the beginning, in the middle, in the end, you’re doing it early in the morning, late at night, when you could squeeze it in if you’re, if you’re a food truck owner, you’re focusing on your food production and events during your day.  

To hear that they’re tired coming into a workshop, but they’re being creative in that state. I want everybody to take personal care of themselves, but know that as a small business owner, this is when your brain does need to work. 

This is when your brain does need to be creative. And so that part has shown itself more lately because we’re running so many programs at this time of year. Obviously in the summer, it’s much more high production with a lot of our members. Right now it’s learning and collaborating and they’re finding the time to do that.

Maureen: You mentioned that it’s easy for you to be able to continue to move the organization forward because of the path that was laid for you before you arrived. I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit in some of those areas. 

Yes, I agree that your predecessor, Laura Fox O’Sullivan, was integral in launching and running the Commissary for a lot of years and did an excellent job at that. But it’s easy for you because it is the perfect role for you based on your previous experience and your passions. 

It’s easy because it is your perfect fit role. And with respect to the work-life balance thing, I mean, you too, right? Having a food truck in the background of your history. 

I felt it, too, from when I was in those early stages of starting the business. You’re striving for a work-life balance, but you’re also working overtime for yourself to avoid working 40 hours for somebody else, right? 

There’s something there about you’re driving your own business, you’re fueled by your own passion. You’re driving your own thing forward. 

Why do you think the Commissary is such an important resource for the people of downtown Rochester?

Rhonda: Oh my goodness. It’s incredible because, of course, when we first started hearing about the Commissary as food truck owners, as a small food business, I was like, wow, if only this would have existed when we were in our idea stage and really that quicker connection to resources. And then of course the financial barriers, too.

You don’t have to buy new equipment. It’s here. It’s a rentable space. You could really try some things out at a lower risk than a long-term lease or something of that magnitude. When it comes to those fixed costs that you could get into.  For downtown it’s all part of this revitalization of this area. 

Our kitchen is within the Sibley building. It has a lot of history, but it’s also right across the street from Parcel 5, the green space that is part of the history of that section of Rochester coming together. 

It is really interesting that the history of working with municipalities of revitalization and getting back to your main street and really thriving back out of the suburbs into downtown.

To have that history, nobody had to sell me on what we’re trying to do when it comes to let’s fill the storefronts. What better option to have a new restaurant or a storefront that has multiple local products in it. That’s so much of the goal.  

Where that comes from is the history, not only of Rochester and this specific area in Rochester, what an influential connection right here.  

I can look out the window and you’re seeing this really historical presence, but then also it’s right down the street from Jiva. It’s two seconds from hopping on the thruway. You know, you get all of these connections right here that we hope would grow people’s awareness and customer base of our members. 

If we have all of these members that want to join, that means we are filling a gap in this area in Rochester for an opportunity for food and beverage businesses. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen people grow into their own spaces. I’ve seen people open their food trucks.

Maureen: Yes, that have graduated out of the incubator and into their own spaces in the community.

Rhonda: Yes, and growing their product lines and connecting with local stores. And that is an initiative that was handed to me. We had received, as an organization, a grant that said, we really need to do something about a grab-and-go concept.

The area needed a place where people could buy products that are produced in the Commissary. And I said, okay, that sounds wonderful. And thank you for the efforts of a grant and then an accepted award.

But then it was like, how do we do that within our space? What are the limitations? 

Our limitations, the biggest one is our square footage. As folks could see, you could hop on our website and there’s a walking tour you could give yourself virtually. 

We really are a very nook and cranny operation. We have a partner that knows vending and micro markets who said, this is where the capacity is going to come from. You’ve built out hundreds of these locally, if not thousands in the state. 

So we made it work and it’s a self-serve credit card operation for our micro market. 

This is just the beginning. We want it to grow and grow. But what really is important to downtown is that the folks here can buy those local goods. The general public knows that we’re growing to help the vendors be online later this year. 

What we discovered was there was this whole section of members, the product-based members to whom we now are their first wholesaling customer. We buy their products from them to sell in our micro market. That’s the reason why we’re doing it. 

It was like an exercise for them to grow in their own business and to say, okay, we’re a friendly audience. We’re here to support you. They still had to pitch us just like we were anyone else and really come up with the specs of their product. They had to be ready to be on a shelf, visually appealing, going through all the regulations of a label, a bottle process, et cetera. 

Now we’re starting to see this all come full circle where folks are getting into small grocery stores. We are pitching grocery stores as a collective to say, hey, we’d love a Commissary end cap that we could see what really sells. 

Then say one of our members, like Gina from Divanna Chocolates, has an amazing chocolate syrup that she just launched in the last six months. And so if that goes really well, then she can get her own shelf space. 

We’re making the endcap or Commissary shelf look appealing in our local stores in addition to the micro market. We’re going to take this show on the road in a big way in March.

We are being showcased in the Home and Garden Show this year. It’s super exciting. And so there’ll be lots more details about that. 

But again, the connection of a small town girl. I used to go to the show with my dad every year. And now it’s still it’s changed names and it’s got different organizers. I’m like, how great is this? There’s so many people and the potential of connecting to future customers.

And having some fun. That is so important to the connection to downtown Rochester, the region. And it’s exciting really being able to see some of these projects take off as I’m sure the founders of this organization were dreaming about when they were writing on a whiteboard and figuring it out. 

Maureen: That’s awesome.

Going back to the very early days when Rhonda and I were both working in Geneva, I had a coworking space that was created by the City. Its original goal was to incubate small businesses to encourage them to grow up and out into the community and have storefronts. That’s an economic developer’s dream, to see there’s tangible growth into the community.

But one of the things that was happening was that it became a place where people wanted to kind of stay and incubate their business in potentially different ways that didn’t necessarily involve a storefront. 

I think that there’s some synergies there, too, with the Commissary. That somebody who has a CPG product that’s going to go on shelf will always need production space, but it might be graduating, growing up and out into a co-packer as opposed to a storefront.

There’s many ways that a business can grow. You were mentioning that one of the reasons why the Commissary is important is because of the resources that are available to very early stage companies that are just getting a start. 

I think that’s especially important for minority-owned businesses that are starting out. They might not have the history of resources available to them for all sorts of reasons.

A majority of the Commissary members identify as a minority, is that right?

Rhonda: Correct, yes. Again, that community impact piece of Rochester has done a really great job of identifying some barriers and identifying some of the real truths around opening their own business. 

Being part of a segmented group myself ,  being a woman-owned business, being a lesbian-owned business, I’ve seen that and we felt it.

Being able to pick those identifiers out in a grant application is easy, but how do we get those things happening on the ground? And a lot of those barriers we’re trying to overcome include reducing risks; reducing costs in a space like ours is so helpful. And we have really relied on those collaborations, like you were talking about. Being in a shared space, of course you’re going to talk to the person next to you.

You’re in production for hours and hours in a station. And so we are already seeing this, that members are using each other’s products in a recipe, or they have these natural collaborations. 

Not only can they get together because they’re in the same space and time, they’re doing the same thing. They are a support system in that way. 

It’s also really being able to say, wonderful, let’s work together in this really intentional way. I’ve seen it with a couple of our members. They’re doing these focused events, cultural events that are around specific celebrations of populations. 

I love that more attention is getting to our members that way, not only within the city, but also that it’s very intentional work. I feel like that on all levels and including the sources of funding. 

Our organization is heavily grant funded. And so it’s great to have that data that is supporting where they are headed. A lot of the purposeful conversations that are happening at Rochester City Hall. We’re demonstrating that we are doing a great job and are able to say, we’re mirroring what you’re saying and we are having success.

Maureen: It’s one of the reasons I love the Commissary and I work as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR). I’m proud to do that because of a lot of those reasons that you’ve just gone through. 

You have amazing experience in grants and you mentioned that the Commissary is heavily grant funded. I know you have a lot of grant experience from your past in local government and some other ancillary organizations as well.  

I am often asked by early stage startups, how can I get a sliver of grant funding. I think that there’s a common misconception that money is gifted to you because you fit certain criteria. Not that that’s impossible, but it’s certainly the exception as opposed to the majority, right?  

What are your thoughts about how to apply for funding? What are some of the one-on-one grants for small and scaling businesses to be aware of? What might be available to them and what they should expect?

Rhonda: Incredible question because this is so misrepresented in a way of just historically expecting that grant money somehow equals free money. 

I find that I am in this conversation often, not only with our members, but also in our structure, in our board structure. We’re trying to access funds in our strategic planning.

I’ll use one example of it is not free money because a lot of times, especially if it’s tied to a government entity, there’s some type of match of a fund that needs to exist. 

The applications can be pretty tough. A lot of folks will have to get support. And here at the Commissary, our members get support from myself, but a lot of times small businesses are looking for those resources. 

Rochester does have those entities and it’s the same thing, private companies would have that support as well. 

One of the examples that I use pretty often is our small businesses. They want to move fast. They want to get to where they’re going. They want to get to that next phase. 

If money is going to get them there, I say grants are so long. They’re so long. If you were really looking to get to that next step and you need it next week, next month, et cetera, that’s not the case. 

Another misrepresentation in a lot of conversations that I’ve had with members is the reimbursable grant. That is just not understood and not heard of. I have to then be the bearer of bad news to say, you have to have the funding somehow to pay it out to then be reimbursed. And you will be waiting some time to get reimbursed.  You have to carry yourself. 

Yes, we have partners that can help in that depending on the projects, but that level of understanding that you’re still going to spend the money and then futuristically you’ll get paid back. There’s a lot of paperwork and nitty gritty things. 

That’s why I love it when we talk about crowdsourcing or Kiva grants or the GoFundMe era of things. Because, yes, that is what they think about as instantaneous in a way. 

I’ve really started talking about funding. Like I said, we are grant funded heavily here. We have some equipment dollars from the Empire State Development in the last Consolidated Funding Application Series last summer that we were awarded.

We didn’t find out obviously until closer to the end of the year. And we have a year to spend the money, then will we be reimbursed. So, even in a budgetary line as an organization, we’re looking at 2025 until that money’s back in our bank account. 

I definitely take the time with folks because small business grants that will have a direct impact in a timely manner are so hard to find.

That’s why we are trying to think very creatively at the Commissary. Are we, in the future, some type of micro grant grantee and that sort of thought process. That takes a lot of planning and strategy. 

Then who are our financial partners that are going to help us with that? Those are conversations that we’re starting to have. 

The grant conversation always starts out with the entrepreneur thinking that they could get it really quick. They think it’s easy money, it’s free money. 

So we have to really break down the applications. If any of our members see things online, I ask them to send it my way and we’ll just take care of what’s needed. 

Nine out of 10 times they’re saying, oh yes, this isn’t going to fit what I’m trying to do.  If you want a food truck on the road this summer, we needed to really be applying last summer at least to then be able to get you where you need to be.

Maureen: That’s why I like to make sure that I do an Info 101 session. I did one with the Commissary last year about funding. And we had Frank Cavallaro from Ithaca Hummus, myself and Rob Poltrino from Skull Diamond and Heart Capital, who all very kindly shared some things to know about access to capital. That was the whole topic of the discussion, not just grants, but access to capital in a lot of different ways. 

It was interesting to me to hear from the audience. One of my key takeaways was hearing there is a misunderstanding about grants because there was an undertone of how dare they apply. The audacity, right? The thinking that I don’t have the money to bring to the table to get a matching grant. That’s not an option for me because you have to bring so much to the table.

You also have to have skin in the game and that’s with any investment strategy. Anybody who’s going to give you any kind of money, whether it’s a grant, a pitch competition, a VC funder, even crowdfunding, they want to make sure that you’ve got skin in the game. 

Prior to this discussion, we had Adie who used to be with WeFunder on the podcast.  Anybody who missed that episode, you can go back and listen to that one too, where he talks a little bit more about the venture capital side of things, which is good to explore as well.  

Final question for you, any parting thoughts or recommendations for anybody who’s in the greater Rochester area, who’s looking to get into the food and beverage industry? Where should they start?

Rhonda: Yes, if they’re looking to get into food and beverage, just look at our website, see what we have to offer. 

We have really tried our best to get any barriers down to where we can possibly and growing the benefits on the same side of we’re just not a rentable kitchen space only. 

That’s a huge asset to what we do, of course, but it really is all of these additional programs and connections that we can get to really accelerate what they’re trying to do.  

I would also say, give me a call. My number is the one on the website. You can reach me directly, my email, or if you fill out the form that goes directly to my email. 

I really want to make sure that folks start out in a positive way, that we get to know all about your business. We don’t want to see you get in and then stumble around and get into some things that you realize you weren’t just ready yet.  

What I always like to say is, it might not be today, but let’s keep in contact. I will make the connections, we’ll connect around, but it might not be today that you’re getting your hypothetical membership card and it’s on purpose. 

That’s because we want to help you. We don’t want to have you come in and be not ready. 

So for those of you in food and beverage and might be interested, we are always giving tours. You can come on in or email or call us and we can walk through what this looks like in our space. 

But in addition, come on in and go shopping at the Commissary Micro-Market.

Maureen: Right. I was just going to say on the flip side, the Commissary also has caterers. It’s not just CPG. There are lots of ways for the local corporations to benefit the small businesses, too.

Rhonda: Absolutely. That’s why in my email signature, it’s like, Hey, you’re looking to do a lunch or a team building event.

We partnered with the Rochester Brainery at the end of last year. They cook three cooking classes a week in our space in the evenings. And that has been great to have additional people into our space that might not have been used previously.

And we do team building. It could be during the day where you and your team come down and you’re making empanadas or learning how to make gnocchi. We do all of those things. 

We are extending our partnerships all the time. But yes, we have lots of opportunities for folks to get to know who we are and how it might fit them.

If they don’t want to run a food or beverage company, but wondering can they get into this really awesome foodie community? Foodpreneurs are an amazing group of people to hang out with. That would be awesome.

Maureen: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Rhonda. Appreciate you telling your story and taking the time for the podcast today.