Community Kitchen Spaces Boost Food Entrepreneurs
Workers process green peppers for Mutha’s Hot Mustard
at the Athens Business Incubation Center, part of Ohio’s Appalachian
Center for Economic Networks.
courtesy ACEnet, Athens,
When Chris Chmiel leaves his farm in southern Ohio for the weekly drive
to the farmers’ market, he brings along blocks of his handmade goat cheese and
jars of his pawpaw-spiceberry jam. In Michigan, Vicki Fuller, owner of Maple
Island Pies, recruits family members to help sell her flaky treats at four
different farmers’ markets. And in Pennsylvania, Kathleen Montgomery totes a
cooler filled with containers of her zesty fresh salsa to a farmers’ market not
Welcome to today’s farmers’ market, where an array of tempting homemade
food is sold alongside fresh, dewy produce and buckets of colorful cut flowers.
Credit the bad economy for this new bounty as laid-off urbanites, looking for
ways to earn income, are re-launching themselves as food entrepreneurs, while
those in the country are happy to bring in extra income with value-added
products made from damaged fruit or a surplus of vegetables.
Shared Kitchen Recipes
“Selling value-added products at farmers’ markets was the only way we
could keep our land from developers,” says Mary Pat Carlson, whose Wisconsin
cherry orchard and farm is generations old. “I’ve sold pie filling, pies, frozen
cherries and other products. If it hadn’t been for the extra income, we’d
probably be a condo right now.”
Leaping into the cottage food industry isn’t without its obstacles,
though. Depending on state health and agricultural regulations, vendors are
often required to prepare food sold to the public in certified commercial
kitchens – and even if they’re allowed to prepare some food at home, there’s the
issue of producing the quantity needed to make a real difference in
The new incubator kitchen
That’s where the shared or “incubator” kitchen comes in. These kitchens
have been springing up across the country like dandelions, though the concept
itself is not new.
During World War II, when Victory Gardens were grown, canning kitchens
were built to help women who didn’t know how to process and can their fresh
vegetables. They’d bring their produce and jars to the canning kitchen, and the
kitchen operator would do the work, ensuring all safety measures were followed.
Those women who knew how to can could lease space and time in the
Today, the principle is the same. Although most kitchen incubators want
you to do the work, they’re happy to lease you space and time in a certified,
inspected kitchen filled with commercial-grade appliances and equipment, and,
depending on the kitchen, they’ll offer some or a great deal of business and
culinary help as well.
One of the oldest shared kitchens in the country is Chef’s Kitchen in
Los Angeles. Owner Andrea Bell has spent a lifetime in the food business, but
during the 1980s, she couldn’t find a kitchen to cook in.
“I was catering for the rich and famous, and I needed a commercial
kitchen,” she says. She solved her problem by buying a commercial property and
building the kitchen herself, opening it to others to help defray costs.
Currently, her kitchens are rented 98 percent of the time. About 40 percent of
lessees are farmers’ market vendors. Because Bell has five kitchens, she
dedicates one for pastry (“No one wants to store cookie dough in a refrigerator
with garlic,” she says), one for vegan and raw foods, one specifically for
canning, and two for general use. Like most incubator kitchens, Chef’s Kitchen
operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, affording maximum flexibility to
clients. And there’s no question a commercial kitchen allows entrepreneurs to
produce more of their product.
“In a home kitchen, you might be able to get four cookie sheets in an
oven,” says Bell. “Here, you can put 14 to 16 sheets in an oven and cook them
faster. That means you can make 10 times as many cookies here as you could at
Help with resources
Yet how many home cooks know how to use a convection oven or “batch up”
their recipes? Kitchens like Ohio’s venerable ACEnet (Appalachian Center for
Economic Networks in Athens) are happy to share that information with clients.
“All of our new food entrepreneurs receive a kitchen tour and
orientation,” says Leslie Schaller, ACEnet director of programming. Clients are
not only taught how to increase recipe quantities, use equipment and the basics
of food safety, but ACEnet also helps producers formulate a business plan, hooks
them up with outlets like grocery stores and specialty food shops, and provides
them with marketing tips.
“We always have a mix of tenants here,” Schaller says, “everyone from
farmers preparing value-added products to a few larger-scale operations that
export their food. We like it that way. We don’t want to exclude anyone.”
Chmiel still uses the ACEnet kitchens to prepare his canned pawpaw
products, which ship around the world.
“ACEnet’s a great place to start a business because you’re not making a
huge initial investment,” he says. That’s what makes shared kitchens like ACEnet
so invaluable to beginners. It may also explain why more shared kitchens are
In Philadelphia, for example, Mary Seton Corboy operates Greensgrow
Farms, an urban farm she started 12 years ago and a farmers’ market she created
shortly thereafter. Last year, she decided she needed a commercial kitchen to
process fruit and vegetable “seconds” into value-added products. Like Bell, she
initially had trouble locating a commercial kitchen.
“I looked around the community and finally found a church that had
recently upgraded its kitchen facilities,” she says. She partnered with the
church, and spent $30,000 of her own money to bring the kitchen up to code. Once
it was ready, Corboy didn’t need to look far for renters. Many came from her
farmers’ market, but word spread quickly in the community, and other food
entrepreneurs came onboard as well. Corboy equipped the kitchen according to a
client wish list, and she’ll put producers in touch with resources if they need
help with marketing or recipe development. Other than that, clients support each
“I don’t have time to put much effort into that side right now,” says
Corboy. She still has a farm and farmers’ market to run.
In Michigan, Jim Henley, kitchen manager of the three-year-old The
Starting Block, is a former chef who is happy to help clients commercialize
their products – including how to batch up a recipe while maintaining the
“Jams and jellies are the most challenging,” Henley says. Ron Steiner,
the kitchen’s director, helps educate clients on business and entrepreneurship,
and between the two of them, they’ve already launched a few new businesses,
including Maple Island Pies.
Maple Island Pie owner Vicki Fuller says when she decided to start her
business, she was referred to The Starting Block, but the kitchen was an hour
from home, and she wondered if the commute would be a drawback.
“I figured if I was going to try this, though, I’d better start
someplace where I’m not risking much money up front.” Her original idea was to
sell pies to restaurants, but the economy cut into potential orders.
“I only had two restaurants place orders,” says Fuller, so she went to
local farmers’ markets to sell her wares. Success, she says, came quickly. After
just nine months, Fuller had made enough money to build her own commercial
kitchen at home.
“The Starting Block legitimized my business, and that made a difference
in sales,” she says. “I think it’s important to do it right from the
Kathleen “Kat” Montgomery couldn’t agree more. She makes a killer salsa
that friends couldn’t stop
“Every time there was a party, I brought the fresh salsa and chips,”
she says. When she began to win salsa throw-downs, Montgomery decided her
friends were right. Maybe she could sell her product.
“I wanted to prepare it in a commercial kitchen to make it legitimate,”
she says, then adds, “I had to.” She had been visiting upscale restaurants and
bars in the area with her product to see if a demand was there, and it was. She
was already receiving orders.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Marlene Squires-
Swanson began selling her
liqueur cakes at farmers’ markets, and though she now has wholesale orders, she
says she still uses the Algoma Farm Market Kitchen that Mary Pat Carlson
“The Farm Market Kitchen let me work through the process without
incurring the extra cost that comes with developing a product,” Squires-Swanson
says. She also likes the education the kitchen provides. “It’s the place of
answers. They walked me through all the licensing requirements you need to start
a food business. It was easier than I thought.”
Ohioan Chris Chmiel likes to blend agriculture with nature, so most of
his crops are forest-farmed – wild pawpaws, black walnuts, ramps and mushrooms,
for example. The incubator kitchen at ACEnet has allowed him to turn these crops
into products he now markets worldwide – without a huge amount of capital.
“I still use my own kitchen to make many of my products,” he says. But
without ACEnet’s help, he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his wholesale accounts.
“It allows me to produce more of my products.”
If current indications are right, and the shared kitchen concept
continues to spread across the United States – incubating more food enterprises
like these – then food lovers are in for a treat. And those who produce and
make the food are likely to see their bank accounts grow fatter as a
Karen Edwards writes about food and drink, health, pets and more
from her home in Worthington, Ohio. She never misses her local farm
Shared Kitchen Resources
94 Columbus Road
Athens, OH 45701
740-592-3854, ext. 115
ALGOMA FARM MARKET KITCHEN
P.O. Box 35
Algoma, WI 54201-0035
Mary Pat Carlson
Los Angeles, CA 90035
310-837-8900 (press “0”)
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Mary Seton Corboy
THE STARTING BLOCK
1535 Industrial Park Drive
Hart, MI 49420
Food Entrepreneur Sources
160 Cherry Ridge Road
Maple Island Pie Factory
Maple Island Road
Fremont, MI 49412
Kat’s California Salsa
P.O. Box 28266
Green Bay, WI 54324-0266
877-673-1095 or 920-405-1095