State of the Artisan: Will New “Food Incubators” Help Create a Culinary Business Boom?
Lobbyist and former congressional staffer Alexandrine De Bianchi first started making her salted caramel, pistachio, and passionfruit French macarons as a hobby two years ago.
But when her employer told her it would be downsizing and laying her off within a year, De Bianchi began thinking seriously about transforming her extracurricular baking into a full-fledged business called DC Patisserie. Seasonal Pantry offered her a space to bake for a while, but the oven was too small for her to expand her operation. She then moved to a bakery in Bethesda, but the commute was long and the available kitchen hours were restrictive.
D.C. itself has hardly any available shared commercial kitchen space. Many owners of small food businesses drive out to Gaithersburg or Manassas for something suitable. Others use restaurant kitchens during off hours, but that typically means working graveyard shifts. As for opening a new storefront? It’s out of the question for many. “It was just cost-prohibitive,” De Bianchi says. “An oven could be like $20,000.”
Now, De Bianchi is one of the first members of Union Kitchen, a new “food incubator” from Blind Dog Cafe owners Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist. The 7,300-square-foot space, located in a warehouse at 1110 Congress St. NE near the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro, will be a hub for budding food entrepreneurs to start or build their businesses. Previously home to Moby Dick House of Kabob’s kitchens, the space houses two giant walk-in fridges and a walk-in freezer, cooking and prep stations, storage, and more. Members can partake in group purchasing to help lower their costs, and Union Kitchen takes care of everything from cleaning to utilities. A local illustrator and graphic designer have offices in-house for members to hire for their marketing, and an upstairs dining room can serve as a conference room or a pop-up restaurant space.
Union Kitchen, which is up and running this month but will formally launch in January or February, is the largest of several food incubators that have popped up or are coming soon to D.C. Earlier this year, Think Local First DC teamed up with Domku owner Kera Carpenter and her non-profit NURISH: The Center for a Creative Culinary Economy to launch StartUp Kitchen, where food industry vets select food entrepreneurs to test-drive their business plans. Meanwhile, artisan kimchee producer Katy Chang is converting a Petworth rowhouse into a community kitchen, “pop-uppery,” and marketplace called EatsPlace.
Although they each are structured differently, their goals are the same: make it easier for small food businesses to start capitalizing on the locavore movement, these food incubators aim to foster a new generation of picklers, small-batch bakers, and other sorts of artisans.
Local government is also getting into it: Mayor Vince Gray’s five-year economic development plan includes a section about supporting the city’s food incubators.
Right now, there’s not much support for first-time restaurateurs or food business owners. “You go to a bank, and they immediately turn you away the minute you say you want to open a restaurant,” says Domku’s Carpenter. “It’s difficult to get financing. It’s difficult to get a lease…And there’s no organized support system the way that there is for people in the tech industry.”
That’s why she helped create StartUp Kitchen. It takes food businesses that are six to 18 months away from opening an establishment and gives them a way to test their concepts. Food entrepreneurs submit a business plan, and three are selected to present their ideas in front of a panel consisting of restaurant vets. The best plan gets a venue to test their concept and coaching from an industry mentor.
Priya Ammu, a 52-year-old mother of three, won the first round of StartUp Kitchen for her DC Dosa concept. Every Monday for six weeks this fall, she prepared dinner at Domku (which is normally closed that night) for sold-out crowds. Although Ammu had some catering experience, she had never done real-time restaurant service. On the first night, Ammu says she ordered double the ingredients she needed, struggled to figure out timing, and had a hard time giving up control to her two prep cooks.
After every night, diners submitted feedback, and Carpenter coached Ammu on everything from ordering to accounting to hiring. Two months after her run at StartUp Kitchen, Ammu has secured a deal to set up a permanent spot in the food court area of the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods, which soft-launches on Monday. Two managers from the grocery store, who Ammu first approached earlier this year, had attended one of her pop-up dinners. “When they saw how the dosas were presented and people’s reactions and I got a really good write-up…that just kind of cinched the deal,” Ammu says.
The next round of StartUp Kitchen, which will call for submissions the first week of January, will focus on dessert and baking concepts. Hello Cupcake owner Penny Karas will provide space in her shop and mentorship for the winner.
Other for-profit food incubators like Union Kitchen and EatsPlace involve less hand-holding, but the spirit of support and community is the same. Chang says she was a kitchen nomad when she started her edamame-made kimchee business Artisanal Soy about four years ago. Because her fermentation operation depends on what’s seasonal and when farmers call her with surplus produce, Chang didn’t have a set production schedule. As a result, she would have to hop between restaurants or commercial kitchens in the area—sometimes going as far as Richmond—to find kitchen space when she needed it.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Chang says. “I knew so many people who had the same problem, and especially people who don’t have cars.”
EatsPlace, which Chang hopes to open this spring, will have 2,500 square feet for small food businesses and caterers to prepare food as well as a market for them to sell it. There will also be a space for cooking classes and a dining room where rotating guest chefs can host dinners. Instead of paying to rent the space, chefs will share profits from the pop-up dinners.
Meanwhile, Union Kitchen grew out of Blind Dog Cafe’s hunt for a space to expand its bakery. The cafe’s in-house kitchen wasn’t big enough to keep up with their growing customer base. They stumbled upon their current space after first looking at its auxiliary bakery upstairs. “We were like, ‘Well, maybe we take the bigger area and try to make something out of it,” says Singer. They’d already been talking to other people about sharing space. “We figured we’d take the risk and make the plunge and commit to the lease and try to build a food incubator out of it.”
The new space will allow Blind Dog Cafe’s bakery to serve twice as many clients and cut inventory costs. Meanwhile, De Bianchi of DC Patisserie plans to become a full-time baker. In addition to catering events and weddings and selling her macarons online, she also has plans to sell them at Righteous Cheese’s stand in Union Market. But beyond the benefits for individual businesses, Singer has grand visions for the whole city. So do Chang and Capenter.
“I’ve seen through my experience at Domku that a local small restaurant has the ability to be a catalyst for positive change in a neighborhood,” Carpenter says. “And you see it all over the city. H Street is H Street today because of restaurants.”
That’s where the city government’s interest comes in. Though there is no plan for the District to run its own food incubator, city officials have been having conversations with all the food incubators in town to see if there are ways they can support them.
Singer says Union Kitchen is in talks with D.C. government officials as well as D.C. Central Kitchen about creating a hiring pipeline for people who could work there as a cleaning or maintenance crew, but also help out as “swing staffers” for members who need an extra hand.
In a way, this idea of sharing kitchen staff or space is just an extension of a larger trend toward a sharing economy.
“We’re sharing cars. We’re not owning bikes anymore. So I think it’s less about, ‘Oh I have to have my own space,” says Think Local First DC executive director Stacey Price. “People are seeing the importance of synergy and collaboration and sharing, whether that’s sharing of a product, or sharing of space, or sharing of knowledge. I think it’s the beginning of a mind shift.”
Or, at the very least, it’s the beginning of some really good, locally produced, hand-crafted macarons.
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Photo of Jonas Singer by Darrow Montgomery