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Shared Kitchen Helps Food Entrepreneurs Cook Up Success

  • Faiza Elmasry

Union Kitchen buzzes with activity and a tantalizing mixture of smells as dozens of cooks and bakers work individually or in small groups.

They share space in the fully equipped commercial kitchen, renting whatever they need; from pans and pots to ovens, refrigerators, freezers and other kitchen appliances. This is what is known as an incubator - a fully equipped workspace, often with mentors - where entrepreneurs can start a business without the substantial financial investment a new enterprise demands.

Daniel Porzio of Ravioli Revolution prefers to rent a kitchen instead of setting up his own restaurant.

"You leave your job to really start up a business, you don’t have that kind of capital to just buy a restaurant and get out there and just create this building," Porzio said. "What you do is you rent. It is affordable for a small business."

Finding a full-service, low-cost and low-risk kitchen in Washington can be challenging. In December 2012, restaurateurs Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist responded to the problem by opening Union Kitchen in a 680-square-meter warehouse. The duo originally purchased the space to expand the bakery for their café. But since it had more space than they needed, they decided to turn it into a food incubator.

“It has all the licensees. We clean it. We have staff taking care of the equipment, we buy the equipment,” Gilchrist said.

Douglas Singer rents two tables and two storage shelves in the refrigerator. After working for more than 15 years as a restaurant chef, Singer is finally living his dream: making corned beef and pastrami to sell to gourmet retail stores.

“Unbelievable, it’s a 10-year old thought that finally came to be 4 months ago,” said Singer, who learned about Union Kitchen from some friends. “It’s easy to start. Everything is in place. You don’t have to worry about shopping for your equipment.”

Union Kitchen also helps members in other ways.

“We try to work with other vendors say like an accountant, or a design firm or a bookkeeper or a social media expert. We try to connect our members with them," Gilchrist said.

"The idea is to help small businesses grow and sustain their business," Singer adds. "We do that by providing people the production space, the storage space to run their business, but also provide them sales opportunities to help them grow their business and handle all the business services. A lot of people here are really good at making food. They understand how the kitchen works. But they might not understand how business works. So we try to provide all of those services around it, and just give them a free rein to go make their food so their business can be successful even if it’s not their strong point."

Pastry chef Meredith Tomason rented a space in the kitchen when she moved to Washington a year ago.

“I found out about Union Kitchen. I came in for a tour and I’ve been here ever since," she said. "I’m here at least 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.”

She finds sharing the kitchen with other food entrepreneurs inspiring.

“There is a great sense of community. We all bounce ideas off each other. We’ve very supportive of each other," Tomason said. "We know what each other are going through with growing pains and business issues and things like that, so we're very sensitive to each other's needs, and help each other out a lot.”

Tomason is using her time at Union Kitchen to perfect her recipes and spread the word about her pastries before opening her own bakery later this year.

With more than 55 members currently sharing this 24/7 facility, and many others on the waiting list, Union Kitchen is looking to expand its operations in the near future.

Ariadne Budianto, with VOA's Indonesian Service, contributed to this report.