Kenyon Strother, owner of Strother Catering, can’t wait until a new commercial kitchen opens in Columbia.
“I’m trying to get in on the ground floor,” he said. “I want to have as much access to it as I can.”
Dubbed the “incubator kitchen,” the new space, in the 2500 block of Main Street, will provide bakers, food truck operators and caterers like Strother with a pay-by-the-hour base of operations without them having to fork out potentially tens of thousands of dollars for a restaurant or commercial space of their own.
Having somewhere to go to prepare food has been a load off Strother’s mind, he says, and has allowed him to focus on his dream – starting a catering business.
“I won’t have to worry about getting the DHEC credentials,” Strother said. “The kitchen was probably the biggest concern I had financially. So everything should go a lot smoother now that I’m not worried about trying to find a kitchen.”
The brainchild of private consultant and local taco cart owner David Roberts, the kitchen you can rent by the hour could fill a niche in Columbia’s growing food circles as well as a void in the area’s struggling economy.
In South Carolina, all food cart, food truck operators and caterers are required by the Department of Health and Environmental Control to have a commercial kitchen for a basis of operations.
“There needs to be a place for these people to work and do their craft, and there’s not,” said Scott Miles, who is helping Roberts with the business’ launch. The doors are expected to open Aug. 1.
Miles, a Greenville-based chef who’s been in the restaurant and food business for almost 30 years, said as more and more cities like Columbia embrace the “food truck revolution,” along with sidewalk carts, people who operate these businesses will need a place to go.
And an incubator kitchen, he says, fulfills the needs of subcontractors well. Many restaurants rely on other food operators such as bakers or artisan food makers for products. The 1,000-square-foot space includes a full catering kitchen and a baking area.
“You can be affiliated with a restaurant, but a lot of restaurants are too busy or don’t have the space to accommodate these people to come in and work when they need to.”
Once the kitchen comes online, the more clients who sign up for the space, the better the hourly rate will be, Roberts said.
Already armed with a list of some 70 interested people, Roberts, it seems, has tapped into a relatively unknown market with an idea he stumbled upon almost by accident.
In 2009, after returning from a trip out West in which he sampled lots of “street food,” Roberts decided he wanted to open a taco cart in downtown Columbia. After learning about state regulations governing food carts, he set out to turn the back portion of his Main Street office building, where he has a private consulting business, into a commercial-grade kitchen.
After a much-publicized dispute with the city and another restaurant over where Roberts could operate his taco cart – some called it “the taco wars” – he ultimately agreed to delay the opening of the cart for one year. In the meantime, a funny thing happened.
After word of his food cart and his commercial kitchen spread, he began getting phone calls.
“The conversation turned from ‘Cool, you’re going to put tacos on the street’ to ‘Can I rent your space?’” he said.
Since then, Roberts has been getting requests every few weeks and says he has plans to expand the incubator idea to Charleston and Greenville.
He loves that people have begun calling his space, officially named DER Kitchen, LLC, “an incubator” something he says you see all the time with high-tech firms.
Strother is just relieved he doesn’t have to bother with the overhead he’d have if he rented his own space or opened his own restaurant.
“There’s a lot of people in Columbia who own their own catering, or bakery or cupcake business,” he said.
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.