ENID, Okla. — As restaurants and other small businesses in Enid faced unprecedented disruption with the COVID-19 pandemic, Kalea Stafford began her charcuterie to-go service to turn the world into her oyster.

Within months of picking up doing charcuterie as a weekend hobby, Stafford, owner of Bite Box, moved into a space at the Strate Center small-business incubator at Autry Technology Center to run her business full time.

Working out of a commercial kitchen at the center, Stafford makes clients their own boxes of the serving platters, which include cold cooked meats, cheeses and other finger foods meant for parties and special occasions.

“Shockingly, it took off,” she said in the center’s conference room last week in between preparing pickups. “This has been perfect — absolutely perfect.”

She attributed her success to people remaining hesitant about going out to eat in the summer 2020, as local restrictions loosened but the pandemic lingered.

“I almost think that was — I hate to say it — but kind of like a blessing for me to start because people weren’t going anywhere, so I could have something new to offer them that they could have at home,” Stafford said.

Connecting with others

Bite Box has been at the center for 18 months, about halfway into the typical three-year-long occupancy Autry Tech offers local startups looking to get off the ground.

Six full-time tenants, including Bite Box, are currently occupying the Strate Center’s facility of offices, labs and manufacturing spaces, located at 2020 W. Willow Run.

Small businesses and entrepreneurs at the center, named for former Autry CEO Jim Strate, receive services and resources such as business space and equipment, incorporation assistance, financial advise and even relationships with other small businesses.

“Not only do they have resources here but just connecting with other (center) clients and learning their journey and what they’ve gone through,” Autry spokesperson Shelby Cottrill said, “they almost find that’s a resource in itself, just seeing someone else who’s been through it.”

Stafford, for example, has prepared boxes with foods from fellow center tenant Sombria Chocolate Co. and former tenant T&C Meats, now located in Stonebridge Village on West Chestnut and Cleveland.

Other former tenants have included Grace Care, Scio 3D Sports, Purple Ink and Fence Solutions Inc.

Tenants have spent as little as six months at the center, outgoing Strate Center director Brian Gaddy said. Retail spaces often apply to use the center as a starting spot before they find more permanent location.

A total of more than 23,000 square feet of incubation space is rented per square foot, starting at $6 for office space the first year and increasing $2 each year after.

This rate increase is designed to build to a tenant’s fourth year in business when they seek an external office space, which Strate Center staff estimate is about $12 with utilities in Enid. Costs for manufacturing square footage also increase yearly.

“Enid is such that if you can find the right place to move into, and it’s the right dollar amount, you might want to jump on it, or it won’t be there later,” Gaddy said.

Per Health Department regulations, chefs can’t work out of a home kitchen, so Stafford said she needed a space while she and her husband work on building their new house, where she plans to add an off-site, code-approved commercial kitchen.

Offering benefits

As a state Department of Commerce-certified small-business incubator, Autry’s Strate Center helps its occupants receive a state income tax exemption for up to 10 years through the Oklahoma Small Business Incubators Incentive Act.

Thirty-six incubators — 15 of which are operated by CareerTech centers — are certified in Oklahoma, according to the state department.

Clients don’t have to be full-time occupants to receive benefits.

On average, Strate Center, which opened in 2008, works with 50 conceptual business and start-ups a year through its self-employment training program, which includes an entrepreneur boot camp and a small business academy, according to Autry.

Two specialists, Don Roberts and Meredith Westfahl, help businesses in agriculture business management and corporate training, respectively.

The center also provides freelancers, start-ups and other organizations with remote co-working spaces. Plans available by the day or the month include furnished work areas, high-speed internet, lockable storage and mail/delivery services.

Autry’s full-time students also come out to see the space, work on business plans, enter the center’s business plan competitions or attend “business boot camp.”

A terminal horizon

Businesses coming through the center have a 80% success rate, compared with 20% for businesses without incubator services, according to Autry.

Gaddy said a successful business would answer the question, are they sustaining life when they leave the facility? Some that have left the center are still operating, while others have sold or merged and netted its owners a profit, but Gaddy said both would be considered a success.

Every business that has come through the incubator has experienced what Gaddy calls a “terminal event,” during which there’s no money to continue running, for whatever reason.

“What we do is try to prepare them for that,” he said. “From day one when they come in we go, ‘You better start preparing for your terminal event because it’s coming; you have to wait and see where it’s at and catch it on the horizon.’”

Business owners without a coach tend to run out of cash flow, Gaddy said, because they grow too fast or make a poor decision, then can’t pay their employees or their rent.

Whether COVID is, or was, a terminal event, he said, “Not sure yet.”

His center director successor, Autry’s current full-time programs director Jeff Huffman, said some places are wide open, while other places can’t find enough staff or supply to continue operations.

“And I think some of our tenants are facing those same kind of things,” Huffman said.

For information about the Strate Center, contact Autry Tech at (580) 242-2750.

Article by: Alexander Ewald, Enid News & Eagle 2.5.22