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 far away.
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.
“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 income.
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 kitchen.
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 home.”
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 being created.
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 other.
“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 recipe’s quality.
“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 start.”
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 started.
“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 result.
Karen Edwards writes about food and drink, health, pets and more from her home in Worthington, Ohio. She never misses her local farm market.
94 Columbus Road
Athens, OH 45701
740-592-3854, ext. 115
ALGOMA FARM MARKET KITCHEN
520 Parkway St.
P.O. Box 35
Algoma, WI 54201-0035
Mary Pat Carlson
1716 S. Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90035
310-837-8900 (press “0”)
2501 E. Cumberland St.
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Mary Seton Corboy
THE STARTING BLOCK
1535 Industrial Park Drive
Hart, MI 49420
160 Cherry Ridge Road
Albany, OH 45710
Maple Island Pie Factory
7795 S. Maple Island Road
Fremont, MI 49412
Kat’s California Salsa
Marlene’s Premiere Desserts
P.O. Box 28266
Green Bay, WI 54324-0266
877-673-1095 or 920-405-1095
Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on modern homesteading, animal husbandry, gardening, real food and more!LEARN MORE