On Friday, August 15, Lucrece Borrego, the founder of downtown’s Kitchen Incubator and Brewery Incubator, received an eviction notice from her landlord stating that she had five days to vacate the premises. A lawyer walked in right in the middle of the League Brewpub’s “Steak and a Bottle Share” and demanded to speak with the “proprietor.” The news was shocking but Borrego remained calm. No, the lease was not up for another five years. Yes, rent had been paid and was current. She was confident this could be fixed. How could the landlord simply decide to kick her out? The reasons provided were late rent payments (due to problems with the landlord’s electronic payment system) and “misuse of the common areas” over kegs in the hallway during deliveries and the final clincher, a game of naked Twister. “Postings on your social media site state that you condoned these ‘games,’” chided the lawyer’s letter. Never would a game of strip Twister be so badly regretted.
Taking precautions but confident that justice would prevail, Borrego anxiously met with lawyers to discuss her options: expensive options. Legal advised that while the eviction could be fought and she would likely win in court, the landlord simply wants her out and no matter what she does, he will be able to find some way to keep serving eviction notices. She was faced with a choice: find $15,0000 to hire a lawyer to fight for her right to stay with the guarantee that the Landlord would make it nearly impossible for her to run her business, or simply try to buy some time and walk away and try to save as much equipment as possible. Unfortunately, with a commercial kitchen and brewery, the most substantial investment is the infrastructure and these things can’t be moved. The investment in the incubators, Borrego’s lifetime savings, would have to be lost forever.
Borrego signed the lease on the property in 2010 and the neighborhood has changed significantly. Scarcely a day goes by without an article on the new “booming” downtown scene. Along with the good of the boom, unfortunately, comes sad stories like this one: a new developer buys a building, realizes he can get more money for the spaces and out go the old tenants that once formed the core of the neighborhood.
“When I moved in here this neighborhood was a no-man’s land,” describes Borrego. “Market Square Park was still under construction and there were almost no open businesses around here. I fought crackheads off my steps, got mugged, got my car broken into and faced constant harassment. But I believed in downtown. So I fought to stay open and I made it work against all odds. The concept had to shift and grow but I got creative and I found ways to make it happen. I understand that my rent would look cheap for the neighborhood with what it is now, but this space was nothing like this when I found it. I restored everything in the space by hand. Unfortunately, a high-rise developer from Colorado isn’t going to see that – this neighborhood, Houston at all, it isn’t going to mean anything to him because it’s just another dollar. I can’t fight that.”
Currently Borrego is not sure where she will go but says with a regretful certainty that the incubators are closed indefinitely. “Many people are asking if I’m pursuing a new location but I can’t begin to comprehend that. I already spent my life savings on this space – I can’t raise that kind of money again. I had no partners, no investors. It was just me. I was told it was impossible to do it the first time but it’s simply not possible to do it again. I’ve fought the eviction to the extent that I can and I already can’t pay that.”
The Incubators are not simply one business, but a hub for many small start-ups that grew up to form significant members of the Houston food and beverage community. Since opening in 2011, the Kitchen Incubator has given birth to businesses like Kickin’ Kombucha, Boomtown Coffee, Bravado Spice and Cacao and Cardamom Chocolate. The space has hosted countless pop-ups that went on to be food trucks or new restaurants. Last year, the space added a revolutionary Brewery Incubator, the first in the world, allowing home brewers to pursue their dream of brewing on a commercial scale. While no breweries had the chance to graduate from the program before the shut down, they built strong brands and followings and two of the Incubator’s brewers are now creating commercial scale beer at Fort Bend Brewing.
As for Borrego, next steps are completely up in the air. She’s received many inquiries from around the country on aspiring brewery incubators and may be working on these projects from an advisory standpoint. “When I moved to Houston from New York the City was ripe but still very much evolving. I remember throwing around ideas for pop-ups and co-working spaces and people looked at me like I was crazy. Now a designated space for pop-ups is being created and many local food business owners have been inspired to share their kitchens. The ideas spread and the seeds have been planted. I’ve loved my time here and being a critical part of that movement, but Houston doesn’t need me anymore, and it may be time to take a break from paving roads and breaking ground to spend a little time on me and just being happy.”