Curated by the Queens Public Library (QPL), Queens FEASTS is a free, 12-week program offering mentorship and training to local entrepreneurs looking to start their own food businesses in Queens.
Four hours a week, participants learn the fundamentals of the industry through interactive workshops, and gain insight from experts on how to shape their career paths. Participants also get a chance for one-on-one guidance from entrepreneurship counselors.
Class topics include marketing, social media, registering a business, budgeting finances - the complete picture of what a small business needs to know before it launches.
Applicants don’t have to be Queens residents, but they do need to have a concept, vision and drive to complete the course. The application process for Queens FEASTS can be competitive, with the program seeing more than 100 applicants per semester for only 20 to 25 spots.
“All of our food entrepreneurs have done some cooking or catering or have some product they want to sell,” said Queens FEASTS manager Monique Hector. “This program moves them on to the next level.”
The program was initially developed by QPL in 2016 at its Central Library location in Jamaica through a collaboration with the Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
FEASTS came about as a part of the Jamaica NOW Action Plan, a $153 million neighborhood revitalization initiative announced by the mayor, borough president and NYCEDC in 2015.
“Initially, when they put out the RFP, a big part of the idea behind the program was because there are a lot of food deserts, especially in Jamaica,” Hector explained. “There’s not a lot of variety in food selection, but there are a lot of entrepreneurs that want to do something about food and serve their community.”
With the space and capability perfect for teaching, QPL decided to apply for a grant. The program was initially called Jamaica FEASTS, but changed its name in March after it expanded to locations in Flushing, Long Island City and the Rockaways following a spike in applicants from other parts of the borough.
Among the 19 graduates of the fall courses is 28-year-old Keily Martinez, the proprietor of Keily Cakes. Martinez learned of the program through her pastor, who knew of the self-taught baker’s aspirations to open up her own artisan dessert company.
Though she didn’t apply right away, the gesture resonated with Martinez, and she sought out the application for this semester’s class. Two weeks after applying to FEASTS, she was forced into a homeless shelter in Brooklyn with her husband and children.
When she found out she was accepted to Queens FEASTS in Long Island City, she still decided to take the course.
Martinez’s perseverance and determination continued even after her family was moved from Brooklyn to a shelter in the Bronx, a commute many would find unbearable.
“My motivation was my family,” Martinez said. “Getting them out of here and going back to Queens and having a life that isn’t full of stress and fear. I’ve been playing around with the idea of starting my own for years, but I never jumped into because I was afraid.
“My biggest fear now is not being able to provide for my family,” she added.
Martinez began her first foray into food entrepreneurship when she was in high school, selling empanadas in order to fund taking care of her German shepherd-pit bull mix named Luna. Once she discovered baking design through an aunt, she was hooked.
Martinez finds ways to incorporate her artistic skills into her products, using buttercream in the same way she would use acrylic paint and fondant in the same way she would sculpt with clay.
When it comes to taste, Martinez draws from her Dominican heritage and independent research on the science of baking to create bold and unique flavors like raspberry albino velvet, a white chocolate base and raspberry mousse infused with rosé moet champagne.
“It wasn’t until I got to Queens FEASTS I saw that I can do,” said Martinez, who filed an LLC for her business in February, but was hesitating to move it forward. “Everything they said in class about how people let their circumstances get in the way and bring them down, I may not be that person anymore, but I was.”
Once Martinez discovered through a counselor at Queens FEASTS that she could legally start selling her cakes from home, she began advertising online and was able to earn $1,700 in the first week.
She applied to utilize a cooking space in the Bronx, where she’ll be working until the family moves back to Queens. But the ultimate goal is to get a luxury cake studio to host tastings for clients.
At last week’s graduation ceremony, Martinez and her classmates served family, friends and other members of the community samples of their products. They also delivered five-minute pitches of their business before commencement was made official.
“I was so excited,” recalled Martinez. “Being able to present my business first and then get the certificate, it meant a lot more to me. If I can do that, then I can present to investors.”
In total, Queens FEASTS has seen 101 graduates, and Hector assesses that nearly half of them have launched successful food businesses or careers.
Program alumni have gone on to receive Vendy and Good Food Awards, been showcased at the NYC Wine and Food Festival, and participated in major culinary events such as the Brooklyn Army Terminal Centennial Celebration and the Queens Night Market.
Through the program, participants learn the myriad avenues available within food entrepreneurship, moving away from the traditional restaurant model, which can be an extremely expensive process.
One graduate secured a full-time job as a chef at a city college, while another procured an account providing food for WeWork.
In terms of the future of Queens FEASTS, Hector hopes to have the opportunity to build a space, a market of sorts, where graduates of the program can showcase and operate their businesses both to the public and to potential investors.
She would love to integrate lenders and private investors into the Queens FEASTS curriculum to build a relationship with participants and possibly boost the success of the entrepreneurs with capital.
QPL is currently accepting applications for its spring Queens FEASTS courses at its Central Library, Teen Library and Flushing Branch. The Flushing program will also offer ESOL training to give participants an English vocabulary they can use in their business dealings. Visit connect.queenslibrary.org/1342 to apply.