On a Tuesday midday, Adam Sturm is pouring the last of a 10-quart vat of homemade sausage and vegetable stew into plastic containers. He is alone in the workspace at Naked Kitchen, Greenville’s only commercial kitchen for rent, and he pauses briefly to review his work.
Ten quarts of vegetable stew, four quiches with local bok choy, mushrooms and turnip greens and three strawberry rhubarb pies. All in all, a productive morning, one that will serve Sturm well the next day when he sells these meals and his farm-fresh produce from his farmers market on wheels, Adam’s Mobile Market.
“Its very farm to table,” Sturm said, scraping the last bit of stew into a container. “The sausage is from Greenbrier Farms, the turnips and carrots and some chard are from Broken Oak Organics. The rest is from Furman Organic Farm.
“It’s a family recipe, and it’s good,” Sturm said of his stew with a confident smile.
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Sturm is but one of seven local entrepreneurs who use Naked Kitchen throughout the week. The commercial space has become a centerpiece for those interested in starting food-based businesses, providing an easy, cost-effective way to grow.
The growth of food businesses can be seen everywhere these days: locally made pimento cheese in grocery store coolers, artisan doughnuts at pop-up shops around town, Sturm’s pies and quiches sharing space with the local produce he sells from his mobile market.
The products range from locally made kimchi and sauerkraut to seasonal popsicles and organic baby food.
The food entrepreneurship is an outgrowth of changing food landscape, seen in places like Greenville and other South Carolina cities.
“I think we owe it to the food scene five to 10 years ago,” Sturm said. “That’s what brought me to Greenville. I graduated Johnson & Wales and came straight to La Bastide and never left. And now I know a lot of other people have either reached the executive chef levels or are starting their own gigs.”
New restaurants have popped up, with chefs and owners at their helm, and farmers markets have become centerpieces of daily life. The changes have generated a more food-minded culture that is encouraging more people to start their own food businesses.
The state Department of Agriculture’s SC Certified program, which promotes South Carolina products in restaurants, at farmers markets and in retail outlets, has grown exponentially since it was started in 2007, from fewer than 100 members to 1,700 today.
The evolving food landscape doesn’t necessarily mean all these new entrepreneurs are successful, but it has provided more opportunities to peddle their wares.
“More people are looking for South Carolina products,” said Kimberly Baker, who has seen a huge shift in food-based businesses as a Clemson Extension Food safety expert. “And with more farmers markets, and restaurants now naming where products come from, it gives new businesses more chance to be noticed.”
The growth in food businesses fueled creation of the Food2market program through Clemson Extension three years ago. The program, headed by Baker, works with entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting a food business.
“There are now a lot of people walking through farmers markets and they’re like, well, I can do that and make some money off of it,” Baker says. “We get about 50 to 75 calls a month on average.”
Nowhere is there more evidence of the foodie business growth than at Naked Kitchen.
Open a little less than a year, the commercial kitchen is almost always full. Owner Ed Creighton estimates he fields three to five phone call a day from people looking to become renters.
“The concept of the business we have, I don’t think it would have lasted if we had started it five years ago,” Creighton says. “It takes 2015 and a more aware community to support these guys.”
Following a passion
Whether food is an easier business to start is arguable, but those who choose food entrepreneurism say the risks are worth the gain.
“I think it’s one thing every person on the planet has in common, we all eat,” said Kathy O’Neal, who started a gourmet pimento cheese business, Nellie T’s in January. “And the Greenville area has an environment that is conducive to it. We attract people who like to try new things.”
O’Neal thought she would work in engineering until she decided to retire, but life had other plans. After 18 months in Afghanistan with Fluor, O’Neal said upon her return she lacked the spirit she’d had before. She wanted a change, a chance to do something she says that “was all mine.”
That led O’Neal to the one thing she’d always had a passion for – cooking. This past January, O’Neal officially launched Nelli T’s. The company currently sells in stores across the Upstate, at two local farmers markets, and most recently in three Bi-lo stores in Simpsonville.
“I love to cook, and that’s how I show people that I love them, by making them pies or cakes or cookies or making them a meal, baking bread; that’s just my way,” O’Neal said. “I could have started a consulting business, but that’s not what would make me happy.”
For Sturm, starting his own food business was a way to combine his passion for local food and for feeding people in a profitable way. His business plan calls for diversifying his business a little more each year.
This year, it was adding prepared meals. The meals are both another income stream and a way to utilize products that might otherwise go to waste. Now, every Tuesday you can find Sturm hard at work at Naked Kitchen prepping, cooking and packaging his healthy meals.
On Tuesday afternoons, Sturm can be found harvesting fresh produce alongside local organic farmers. On Wednesdays, he sells his wares at Upcountry Provisions Bakery & Bistro in Travelers Rest.
Next year, Sturm hopes to add a second truck to his operation.
“I think food is one of your more approachable startups,” Sturm says. “The expectations are extremely high but if you feel you’re up to the challenge it’s a great way for a self-motivated person to get their feet wet in the business world.”
A place to grow
Food businesses are their own unique brand, however. They can be easy to start, but not necessarily easy to maintain, said Ron Koprowski, a mentor with SCORE, which provides free assistance to local small business owners.
The regulations are many when it comes to food, and wannabe entrepreneurs must be aware of the necessary licenses, insurance and other requirements related to selling edible products.
But the competition can mean many businesses just don’t last, Koprowski says.
“With food, there is a shelf life,” Koprowski said. “If you have a boutique that sells clothes, there is seasonal expiration on styles but you can pull it out next spring or run a sale on it. It just don’t work the same on the food side.”
That means a food entrepreneur must really know and understand his or her market.
While SCORE receives about 400 to 500 inquiries from startup businesses each year, few if any are food-related, Koprowski said. He surmises the dearth may be because many people start food businesses simply as side ventures meant to make a little extra money.
For those small ventures, passage of the South Carolina Cottage Food Bill in May 2012 has helped a lot. The law allows home bakers to sell products they make in a home kitchen, but limits what products and the amount of money that can be earned.
That limit is what drove Shannon Mercado to Naked Kitchen this past March. The founder and baker behind Circa Doughnut had been preparing her popular artisan doughnuts out of her home kitchen since launching her business last May, but as things took off and the business grew, Mercado needed a new space.
“It was a scary step because it’s an additional cost,” Mercado said. “But it really forced me to look at, well, what new opportunities does this present.”
Enter Naked Kitchen. The commercial kitchen developed out of Naked Pasta last year. Creighton and wife, Julie Jenkins started the artisan pasta business in 2013 as a fun side venture. It was fun, but it was time-consuming.
So last year, the couple turned management of the business over to Creighton’s children, Jacqueline and Jonathan. The two new owners now run Naked Pasta and have doubled the company’s business. They work out of the Naked Kitchen space three days a week.
“It was empty the rest of the time,” Creighton said. “So we decided that if we were going to keep the building and all the equipment, we were going to try to use it as a profit center for family but also as an affordable solution for folks who want to come in and get creative.”
Naked Kitchen launched in July and has since exploded. It is DHEC-certified and is approved by the Department of Agriculture as well. It contains everything from industrial ovens and stoves, sinks and waste disposal facilities, as well as industrial-size freezers and refrigerators where renters can store their products.
Currently, Naked Kitchen is occupied at almost all hours of the day. Tenants sign up for time slots and pay about $15 to $25 an hour to rent space. For most, that comes to about $400 a month, much less than what it might cost to lease their own spaces.
“I would never be able to get to the next level in my business without something like Naked Kitchen,” Sturm said. “It really provides the opportunity to test the waters vs. getting loans to buy or build out a kitchen.”
Naked Kitchen has worked out for Mercado too, but the 25-year-old sees another force at work as well – a greater appreciation for good, thoughtful food.
“As a generation, I think people now in their 20s and 30s have an increased awareness for quality, and there’s a dense population of those types of people in Greenville,” Mercado said. “And then couple that with a community that really champions small local businesses.”
Circa has gone from a couple of pop-up shops a week to now regular pop-ups, catering orders and supplying local restaurants. Earlier this year, Mercado hired her first part-time employee to meet the growing demands of her business.
What the future holds for Circa, Mercado can’t answer, but for now, she is making money doing something she loves.
“I know this sounds cheesy, but there is something very special about providing nourishment of some kind to people,” she said. “There is something very special about food in that it’s an experience you share with people. It’s very rewarding.”