WORCESTER – From mocktails to vegan cuisine, Pre-Columbian dishes to banh mi, the smorgasbord on offer Monday evening at the Worcester Regional Food Hub represented every corner of the Heart of Commonwealth and beyond.

Families and friends were gathered at the Food Hub’s Greendale People’s Church headquarters to celebrate the 18 local residents – one man and 17 women – who graduated from the inaugural Launching Diverse Entrepreneurs in Worcester program.

During the ceremony’s opening remarks, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Timothy P. Murray called this group of food entrepreneurs “the next generation of the city’s food scene.”

Noting the strong local culinary talent and creativity supported by the Food Hub, paired with the fact that Worcester County is home to more farms than any other region in the Commonwealth, Mr. Murray said Worcester is now “a culinary destination.”

As director of the Food Hub, Shon Rainford has worked closely with these 18 individuals over the past 16 weeks. At the culmination of the program he congratulated the graduates but said this isn’t the end of their partnership.

“Graduation is just one chapter in your food business story and I look forward to helping you through the rest of your journey,” he said.

Funded by a $65,000 Massachusetts Office of Housing and Economic Development Urban Agenda Grant, as well as monies from The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, the program Mr. Rainford led saw participants learn about business planning and sales, insurance, accounting, and branding among other subjects while also becoming ServSafe certified.

Throughout the four-month curriculum, guest speakers including representatives from the Chamber, Center for Women & Enterprise, City of Worcester, and Clark University’s Massachusetts Small Business Development Center advised participants on various aspects of launching and operating a business.

Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus, Jr. applauded the graduates’ decision to launch a business based on passion and dedication. Commending their courage, he said these new businesses represent “jobs, opportunities to provide for yourself, your family, and your community.”

City of Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty and The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts’ President & CEO Jan B. Yost were also in attendance.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is the director of communications at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached via email.