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April 17, 2017

Former Niche chef training Worcester up-and-comers

PHOTO/NATHAN FISKE Cornelius Rogers only non-restaurant business experience came when he worked the grill department at Shrewsbury discount department store SPAGS as a young man, but he plans to draw on his extensive culinary expertise to increase entrepreneurship out of the Worcester Regional Food Hub.
The Worcester Regional Food Hub is envisioned as a place where people can develop restaurant concepts or test out new food items to put in places like farmers markets.

Chef Cornelius Rogers took Niche Hospitality devotees by surprise when he announced last month he planned to leave the restaurant group in favor of a job at the Worcester Regional Food Hub.

“I'm super excited to work for great organizations that do a lot of good,” Rogers said. “Five years ago ... I would have seen myself at a fancy famous restaurant, not starting up small businesses for the Food Hub.”

The former executive chef de cuisine at Worcester-based Niche, Rogers had been growing steadily under the tutelage of Niche Executive Chef Steve Champagne. Rather than continue that career tract, Rogers decided to help the growing Worcester restaurant scene develop its next generation of talent.

“It's time people in our industry give back more,” Rogers said.

Restaurant incubator

The Worcester Regional Food Hub provides a commercial kitchen for budding entrepreneurs looking to start or expand their small businesses.

“Many entrepreneurs find the barriers to starting a new business to be insurmountable,” said Janice Yost, president of the Health Foundation of Central Mass, which operates the food hub. “The ability to rent the kitchen on an hourly basis enables them to test the market for their special creations without having to go in debt.”

Rogers will be the food hub's kitchen operations manager, managing the day-to-day operations of the commercial kitchen incubator program as the primary point of contact for tenants.

“Neil's experience in the food industry, with many successful ventures, will add greatly to the kitchen's mission to incubate and launch new businesses,” said Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, which operates the food hub along with the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts.

Finding more tenants

One of Rogers' first tasks will be to expand the number of food hub tenants beyond its current eight.

“Being someone seeing it from the outside is a good thing,” Rogers said. “People think they can open a restaurant right away, but it takes a year. You need to draw out a concept, cost it, make samples, move slowly toward a final result.”

In addition to his own personal and professional connections in the food industry, Rogers plans to draw on the networks of the Worcester chamber and the Regional Environmental Council to attract new entrepreneurs.

The first food hub tenant was the Regional Environmental Council's YouthGROW, which is an urban- agriculture-focused youth development program in the city of Worcester, and also the purveyor of the popular local condiment “Drop It Like It's Hot Sauce.”

“Since transitioning to making our product at the food hub, we have doubled our production speed and look forward to working with food hub partners to create a business plan for whole sale markets,” said Program Coordinator Grace Sliwoski.

While Rogers doesn't boast a seasoned business background, his experience in professional kitchens will help new restaurants understand the pressures of operating in the Central Massachusetts market, Yost said.

“He brings his earned expertise and passion for excellence to share with those who aspire to make a name for their creation,” she said.

Rogers is eager to learn and help new businesses grow, even though his new job requires a substantial pay cut from his position at Niche.

“The quality of life I will gain in addition to the opportunity to help people of this city will make up for any differential in pay. Helping others can't be equated to a dollar amount,” Rogers said.

Niche moving forward

Despite the loss of one of its food talents, Niche is taking Rogers' resignation in stride, continuing its efforts to expand in Central Massachusetts.

“We don't have a position to fill. For the right person, we are always willing to create a new role, but it's not as if our Executive Chef Steve Champagne is leaving,” Niche President and CEO Michael Covino said. “That would be a much bigger deal.”

Covino is happy that Rogers is finding fulfillment in something more community based, saying Rogers' aptitude for self promotion and social media will serve him well at the food hub.

Covino saw Rogers as part of a team, and like any great coach, he understands that sometimes people get traded or move onto other teams.

Rogers' new job is sure to drive entrepreneurship in Worcester at every level, creating a promising farm team for thriving franchises like Niche, Covino said.

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