On a recent Friday morning, Rachel McAlister is hard at work. She is methodical, carefully forming balls of dough, weighing each into small, flat, pancakes before filling them with a sundried tomato, spinach and feta mix.
The room, a pristine 1,500-square foot kitchen outfitted with industrial size mixer, food processors and a restaurant grade convection oven, is one McAlister, having just launched her food business, The Biologist’s Baker, never would have been able to afford on her own. But luckily, she found Imagine Kitchen.
The commercial kitchen space is available for rent by those who, like McAlister, want to start a food business, providing a fully equipped, and Department of Health and Environmental Control certified space to work.
For about $800, McAlister can use the space at Imagine for up to 60 hours a month. Usually, she can be found there a few days a week, prepping her goods to sell to local coffee shops and at farmers markets.
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“It’d be great to have my own space, but just starting out I didn’t necessarily have the capital to get a store front,” said McAlister. “So this allowed me to get it started and to see where it can go.”
As the number of food entrepreneurs grows, so does the need for certified space where to work. This need is even more prominent today, when concerns regarding food safety also have risen. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently changed the requirements for labeling food products to be stricter.
In the past, entrepreneurs were faced with one of just a few options – sell illegally out of their homes, rent space from a restaurant during off hours, or buy or lease their own space.
So called shared use kitchens are certified spaces that are available for rent by the hour, and there are now three in Greenville, one in Fair Play and one in Spartanburg. There’s at least one, DER Kitchen, in Columbia.
“I do see more and more coming about,” said Kimberly Baker, director of the Food2Market program, a part of Clemson Extension that helps guide food entrepreneurs through taking their products to market. “I think as long as we’ve got more and more food entrepreneurs asking for spaces we’ll see more and more commercial kitchens popping up.”
Growing food business
Wendie Schneider started small. At first, the registered dietitian and healthy lifestyle coach started a blog just to help guide her patients through their journey to healthy eating. But then, people started asking her for help making some of the dishes she recommended.
That led Schneider, who goes by the name The Pantry Doctor and blogs under the same moniker, to create and market her overnight oats. These are prepared meals of raw rolled oats that Schneider mixes with super foods like goji berries, cacao nibs and maca powder. Simply add water or any kind of milk and let sit overnight and voila, instant, nutritious breakfast.
So now, Schneider uses the shared use kitchen space at Old Mill Shared Use Kitchen about 5 to 10 hours a week.
“I thought there has got to be a way to solve this breakfast dilemma for people,” Schneider said. “So I thought I can put them in jars, but what’s going to make them different from the Pinterest ideas. So I incorporated plant based proteins from super foods and healthy fats, so they’re balanced.”
And if a few people like the product, Schneider said she figure others would as well.
This is the type of story Baker hears a lot. It’s why she helped start the Food2Market program in the first place.
“People think I’ve got the best barbecue sauce or the best salsa recipe,” Baker said. “And they think, why not?”
But there’s a lot more that goes into starting a food business, Baker added.
In the past few years, the number of people starting food businesses has risen exponentially. Numbers are hard to come by, but anecdotally, Baker said, “I get calls all the time.”
Baker points to the growth of farmers markets as part of the fuel. There are over a dozen in the Upstate and each gives small food businesses a platform.
The rise of the mobile food industry is also adding to demand for commercial kitchen space. DHEC regulations require food trucks, carts and trailers use a commissary kitchen for loading and offloading their food.
“I would definitely love to see more of them (commercial kitchen spaces), but the critical factor is having the right person with the right knowledge running them,” Baker said.
The laws and regulations are changing all the time, Baker said. Most recently, the federal law shifted the regulation of direct to consumer products from the SC department of Agriculture to DHEC, Baker said. This means anyone selling at farmers markets or in another direct to consumer capacity must now go through DHEC.
However, those selling in a wholesale capacity as to a grocery store or other retail outlet must go through the Department of Agriculture.
“Getting in a commercial kitchen is great,” Baker said. “But there’s also a lot of food safety and food regulation knowledge that those that oversee them need to have.”
Filling a need
In South Carolina, those wanting to start a food business must be certified by the Department of Agriculture, as well as DHEC, and products also must be produced in kitchens that have been inspected and certified by DHEC.
Thus commercial kitchen spaces serve a dual purpose. They provide a certified space in which to produce, and they alleviate the financial burden of having to purchase or lease a space, something that can be particularly daunting in an industry where most ventures don’t succeed.
“They’re just getting started so they don’t know if their product is going to make it on the market for very long, and that’s hard,” Baker said. “And they don’t have the financial means to purchase a facility and all the equipment that goes with it, so this saves them a ton of money, they can get their feet wet, and they know they’re already in a facility that meets requirements.”
In creating the business, Jef and Stephanie Heuerman drew from their own experience seeking a space for Jef to start a bakery business. Then, they were living in Cincinnati and Jef had just graduated with a pastry arts degree (after having left a career in sales) and he was searching for a space to start his own bakery.
What he found shocked him.
“After I graduated, reality set in of buying the equipment and leasing the space,” Jef said. “I couldn’t make enough cakes to cover my expenses. And I could not find a kitchen to use. So I just made them on the side.”
Imagine Kitchen was built out of the things Jef was looking for when he graduated pastry school. So in addition to an affordable space, equipment, 24/7 access, Imagine also works to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
Vaughn Ownbey had the same mindset when he started Old Mill Shared Use Kitchen earlier this year. The 1,000-square-foot space on Conestee Road, started as a space for Ownbey and his wife and business partner, Suzanne, to have a commissary for their mobile food operation, Rock Star Grille. But then, they decided to start a new restaurant.
Old Mill Café & Catering had a good run, but earlier this year, Ownbey saw potential for the space to fill another need.
“We took the retail concept and built that alongside a commissary space,” Ownbey said. “At the outset, I wanted to build at capacity for more folks to use, because it was so hard for us to find space. I had been all over the place and it was a radical concept for a restaurant owner to think about lending their sanitation Grade A to someone on the street.”
In addition to offering space, Old Mill tries to go one step beyond, though, Ownbey said, providing more of a business incubator type service to its clients.
To that end, Ownbey and Suzanne meet with clients monthly to discuss topics like marketing strategy and pricing products. Ownbey is also a member of the Hub City Co-op as well as the South Carolina Specialty Foods Association, which affords Old Mill clients access to information as well as shelf space.
“We try to help our folks come through he curve, not just production, but the marketing aspects, too,” Ownbey said. “So when someone comes in they don’t start cold.”
Ed Creighton and Julie Jenkins, with their Naked Kitchen, might be considered the pioneers of the local commercial kitchen movement. The two opened their Naked Kitchen space in The Village of West Greenville in July 2014, quickly drawing a myriad of wannabe food entrepreneurs pedaling wares from popsicles to organic baby food and sauerkraut to artisan doughnuts.
The kitchen continues to attract a steady stream of makers hoping to find success in the food business, and while Creighton is excited by the level of creativity he’s encountered among his tenants, he has a healthy skepticism about their ability to grow sustainable food businesses.
“We’ve probably had 20-25 business in the kitchen,” Creighton said. “Some have grown out of the kitchen and need their own place but for the most part it’s just not what they think. That’s why so many restaurants go out of business.”
From Creighton’s experience the reasons are a combination of not having a fully developed business and marketing plan, and not having enough outlets through which to sell products.
“They need other outlets than to do pedal them every Saturday morning at a farmers market.
McAlister is well aware of the risks, but at 25, she’s keen to take a chance.
Finishing up on a recent morning at Imagine Kitchen, she’ll finish with about three dozen spinach sundried tomato feta galettes and about 10 peach mint ones. The later are an experiment, all of which she’ll deliver to Methodical Coffee before the day is over.
The baker looks fatigued. Last night she spent several hours pedaling her wares at the Taylors farmers market, only to get up bright and early in order to get in a full three hours at Imagine Kitchen in order to make enough product for sale and to prep for next week.
Yet, there is also an energy about McAlister as she loads her giant trays of galettes into the oven, and you can’t help but notice her smile.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking because what if it just fails?” McAlister said. “But I feel pretty confident and, I feel like there’s enough support from the community for it. I have people that come back every week at the market looking forward to getting something. So as long as I keep making things well, I feel like it will go well.”