It's Wednesday morning and a Toast to Bread is closed, but a deep earthy scent wafts through the empty main bakery. Sarah and Seth Couenhoven, a mother-son duo, mix, shape and bake whole-grain nutrition bars.

Some Saturdays, the bakery is filled with the aroma of hickory smoke when Jason Hendrycks and his business partner roast 75 pounds of their specialty, Barsy's Almonds.

Such is the schedule at the St. Paul Incubator Kitchen, believed to be the area's first, though a growing trend in towns big and small around the country.

Owner Mervyn Hough said the idea to rent out the bakery's space came to him about a year ago, because their kitchen was only used about a third of the time. The bakery itself is only open for retail sales on Saturdays, because most of its products are sold through co-ops and farmers markets, he said. "A Toast to Bread is really a tenant now," Hough said. "It's the largest tenant." He started the business as a "place where entrepreneurs with dreams can get started without needing a ton of capital to do it."

That's why, around the country, such incubator kitchens have been gaining popularity. In Los Angeles, the Chef's Commercial Kitchens Co-op opened in 1984 and houses five kitchens for rent. Owner Andrea Bell said she spent more than $100,000 on her first professional kitchen.

"It oftentimes takes a couple of years to get on your feet," she said of new food businesses. "And having the pressure of paying back a mortgage or business loan while you're trying to just break even is more than a lot of businesses can sustain."

Another boon for the concept is the growing popularity of specialty foods, such as vegan and organic, Bell said.

The Couenhovens have been coming to the St. Paul Incubator Kitchen on Wednesdays since January to bake their Thuro Bread nutrition bars, which are low in sugar and have no yeast. The Couenhovens have since purchased some of their own equipment and rent permanent storage space from Hough.

Sarah Couenhoven began experimenting with the recipe for the bars in 1995 to find a healthy snack food for her husband, who suffered from migraines because of overly processed, sugary foods.

The Couenhovens now market their product at local triathlons and MS Society events. They bought a machine to form the dough into bars and triangle samples, but Couenhoven said she doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars on a full kitchen's worth of commercial-grade equipment.

"It's too large of an investment," Couenhoven said.

Macy's to hummus

Another of Hough's tenants, Deena Kvasnik of West St. Paul, has been making her homemade hummus dip in the bakery for about six weeks.

The main thing she uses the space for is roasting large batches of red peppers and eggplant.

"If you had a small oven, you'd have to do like, 10 cycles on it," she said of her average batch size.

Kvasnik, 29, said she lost her job at Macy's in a mass layoff and about the same time, found a message Hough had posted to her women's cooking group about kitchen space for rent.

"It was kind of perfect timing," she said of finding the incubator kitchen.

Kvasnik sells her hummus dip at the St. Paul Farmers Market, and said she has been amazed at how fast her business is growing.

She and the Couenhovens said one perk of the incubator kitchen is the gentle support given by Hough and his wife.

Hough said his background as a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer lends itself well for mentoring the fledgling businesses. He estimates that, in time, the incubator kitchen could match the bakery side of his business about 50-50.

"They're a lot of fun," he said of the tenants.

"It's an intellectual process as well as a physical and creative process."

Neither Hendrycks, a graphic designer by trade, nor his partner, who works in marketing, has a cooking background, but they thought the almond business could provide some extra income. Right now, they're making about $200 to $300 per week for about 10 hours of work.

They buy all of their raw ingredients in small quantities, Hendrycks said, and they use the bakery's equipment for their cooking, so there wasn't a lot of start-up money needed.

"We kind of racked our brains trying to find a kitchen like this," he said, "and we found Merv on Craigslist."

Hendrycks said he had heard horror stories about small businesses that flopped, but so far, Barsy's is doing fine.

"It's been really positive," he said. "We haven't really had any roadblocks. ... We wouldn't have been able to do this without the bakery."

Emma L. Carew • 612-673-7405