Consumer Goods Accelerator program expands with MLK kitchen, test site for restaurant startups

Photo by Barry Courter / Opening in the old 2 Sons space on MLK, Proof is the brainchild of Michael Robinson, left, and Mia Littilejohn, third from left. Toby Darling, second from left, and Kaleena Goldsworthy will manage the bar areas.

Ask just about anybody who has ever opened a restaurant and they will tell you that running such a business is about far more than putting on a chef's hat and whipping up a delicious meal.

In fact, that's not even the only hat you will be required to wear, figuratively speaking. You'll also need to know about staffing, budgeting, payroll, state and local taxes, permits, Health Department regulations, and inventory. And that latter item isn't just about making sure you have enough fresh fish or produce on hand; it's also about knowing how to store it.

Then there are the marketing and branding issues. What will your signage and menus look like? If you plan to serve alcohol, the rules and regulations get even more complicated.

Michael Robinson, co-founder of Brewhaus on the North Shore and former chief operating officer at Chattanooga Whiskey, and Mia Littlejohn, a culinary consultant and strategist, have worked for two years with local nonprofit business accelerator CO.LAB on their Consumer Goods Accelerator. The 12-week program helps early-stage consumer goods companies grow and scale their businesses.

The two will continue to partner with CO.LAB, which operates out of the Edney Innovation Center. Beginning in March, they will move, and greatly expand, their operation to Proof which will be at 422 E. M.L. King Blvd., in the space formerly occupied by Two Sons Kitchen and Douglas Heights Bakery.

Proof, as the new business will be called, will also be a food and beverage incubator with a dining area, bar, a shared kitchen incubator complete with beverage production and kitchen areas, and large and small classrooms for consulting.

The area that once housed the bakery will be equipped with a kettle and fermentation system for brewing and a small beverage system. The back kitchen area will be for food prep for startup restaurants and caterers, according to Littlejohn.

One of the first tenants in the kitchen area will be Dr. Thacher's Cocktail Syrups. Dr. Thacher's owner Toby Darling will be the bar manager and The Bitter Bottle owner Kaleena Goldsworthy will be beverage manager. The craft cocktail bar/restaurant area will be open Thursday-Saturday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Littlejohn said.

The 6,000-foot space has an upstairs and downstairs area. The craft cocktail bar is downstairs and there is dining space there and upstairs. Both of the classroom spaces are upstairs.

Chef Chris Greer's Lil Oso will provide the food for the dining area.

"There are a lot of moving parts," Littlejohn said.

photo Photo by Barry Courter / Opening in the old 2 Sons space on MLK, Proof is the brainchild of Michael Robinson, left, and Mia Littilejohn, third from left. Toby Darling, second from left, and Kaleena Goldsworthy will manage the bar areas.

The accelerator doesn't charge for its consulting services, but the tenants will pay rent to use the facilities in the building. Not all of their clients are startups or even all that new. Many are looking for ways to do things better on the back-end, for example.

Past accelerator clients have included Hutton & Smith, whose footprint continues to grow as it sells its beers in tap rooms and retail outlets around the South; Cashew Plant Based Cafe, and Sequatchie Cove Creamery, which started producing cheeses in 2010.

They were looking for ways to streamline their business and, after working with Robinson and Littlejohn, it was determined they could greatly reduce costs by outsourcing their milk during the winter months to save the cost of feeding, milking and caring for a large herd of cows.

Robinson said part of what they do is "ask the hard questions," and often they work with people who have a good product but they are just looking for better ways to produce and market it.

Goldsworthy believes she represents just about everything that Proof's Consumer Goods Accelerator 12-week program is all about.

The owner of the recently opened The Bitter Bottle, she had to go through the usual steps to open a new business. But she also had to get a Prohibition-era state law changed, and she said that the help Robinson and Littlejohn provided through the accelerator program proved invaluable at nearly every step of the way.

"I feel like a combination of everything they do," she said.

Through the program, she was able to better define her goals and mission, but it was also through the contacts that she met that she was able to get to the right people within the government to get what she needed. She ended up working with about 10 different agencies at the local, state and federal level.

"I could not have done this without them," she said.

Littlejohn said the two had been considering expanding their operation for some time, and when the Two Sons space became available, they jumped at it.

"It's a perfect space for this, but we hope to outgrow it," Robinson said.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.