Commercial kitchens with a community focus
BY SARAH HENRY
PHOTOS BY NICKI ROSARIO
Who doesn’t know someone who has hung his or her shingle out as a jammer, pickler, or baker? This local boom in small-batch food producers means demand for commercial cooking space is at a premium in the East Bay. But the people behind these budding micro-businesses with an edible emphasis have long grumbled that the commercial kitchens available to rent here are too small, too funky, too old-fashioned for their tastes, or just financially out of reach.
One notable exception is The Artisan Kitchen in Richmond. It houses about a dozen emerging or established food companies working in a cooperative environment that gets high marks for its clean kitchen layout, good light, and modern equipment. Opened in 2009, the Artisan Kitchen is home to such popular food trucks as Vesta Flatbread and CupKates. Many former and current tenants praise the place for its communal vibe, but a downside for some has been its location, which adds extra freeway driving time for businesses like mobile vendor Liba Falafel, a one-time tenant. Others, like ghee makers Ancient Organics, moved on because they needed their own space designed for their own needs. Both Ancient Organics (profiled in this magazine’s Fall/Winter 2011 issue) and Liba Falafel (featured in the Harvest 2010 pages) found new homes in West Berkeley.
Now, a new crop of commercial, community-oriented kitchens are popping up in the area to meet a seemingly endless market for made-from-scratch prepared goodies.
Each space has its own flavor. One, up and running for more than six months in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, targets new edible entrepreneurs exploring whether they want to pursue a culinary career or take their nascent food businesses to the next level. Another, opening any day now in West Berkeley, is geared toward established edible entrepreneurs eager to work alongside other successful food enterprises in a retrofitted historic building that has the potential to develop into a thriving food hub. And a third, gearing up in a small corner building in North Oakland that also houses a café and hosts a weekly farmers’ market, has a food justice focus.
For emerging food companies of all kinds, such kitchens can’t come soon enough.
A slew of physical and mental health issues, accompanied by a growing list of food sensitivities, forced Sophia Chang to revisit her personal and professional life. These challenges also helped nurture a seed of an idea that culminated in the opening of Oakland Kitchener in July last year. The 1,500-square-foot commercial kitchen space, which features pink and white walls with black trim, feels like the kind of place cakes and cookies might come from, and it is, indeed, a former baking facility.
For seven years Chang worked for Agnes Hsu, the founder of Teacake Bake Shop, first as a baker and then for five years as a site manager. When Hsu decided to downsize her baking business, she approached Chang about taking over the kitchen space.
Battling Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, among other ailments, Chang wasn’t sure she had the resources or strength to start her own operation. But she was also getting a crash course in the role that food additives, preservatives, and chemicals played in her illness and mulling over starting a food business with a health-conscious bent.
So she took the plunge and launched Oakland Kitchener. It quickly garnered a reputation as an affordable, accessible, and low-risk kitchen for food start-ups. Chang began with five tenants on board the first month, but by four months later her kitchen roster quadrupled. She says the businesses benefit—and gain more attention—as a collective of talented artisans working from a shared space, versus if they were on their own or toiling from home.
That’s one reason why the recent passage of the California Homemade Food Act, also known as the Cottage Food Law, hasn’t had too much impact on Chang’s business. (She lost one baker who converted her garage into a kitchen; a few other tenants reduced their Kitchener hours.) The law, effective this year, allows food producers who make certain nonperishable foods that don’t require refrigeration (such as jams, baked goods, and nut butters) to prepare food for sale in their homes. It’s good news for some, but with a sales cap of $35,000 (in 2013) to $50,000 (by 2015), it’s limiting for larger food businesses and irrelevant to producers who work with milk, meat, and eggs. And, Chang says, many of her tenants simply want to separate home and work life and prefer to rent space to run their business.
Food producers who work out of Oakland Kitchener pay a maximum hourly rate of $18 and must commit to a minimum of 10 hours per month. That rate lowers the more a business uses the kitchen. Some of the more than 20 food vendors on Chang’s roster sell at farmers’ markets and pop-ups; others have wholesale clients in cafés or retail stores. Still others sell their wares through Good Eggs, another relatively new community-supported food service hatched by a couple of gourmet geeks, who offer one-stop online shopping so that food producers and farmers can sell their edibles directly to consumers.
Chang handpicks the people who share the space at Oakland Kitchener and is particularly drawn to producers with an SLO (sustainable, local, organic) slant. She singles out three food makers of note who currently work in her kitchen: Javi’s Cooking, Muffin Revolution, and The Cook and Her Farmer. Javier Sandes, who formerly ran the popular food truck Primo’s Parilla, where he specialized in Argentine-style grilled meats, now crafts empanadas for wholesale distribution at Oakland Kitchener. (Note to Primo Parilla fans: Sandes continues to scout around for a retail space to bring his gaucho grilling back to Oakland.) Muffin Revolution is run by a former lawyer and an artist who met at the natural-health-focused Bauman College in Berkeley. Marirose Piciucco and Christy Kovacs make “meal” muffins full of cheese, chopped veggies, and other nutritious fillings, which they sell through their website and via Good Eggs.
Romney (Nani) Steele and Steven Day are the cook and the farmer, respectively. The two plan to open an oyster bar in the spring at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. While negotiating over a lease and waiting for build-out plans, Steele has spent time behind the stoves perfecting preserves and pickles she intends on selling at her new spot. “Nani has been instrumental in giving small businesses within Kitchener generous advice and counsel,” says Chang, of the accomplished chef (ex-Grace Street Catering) and author of the cookbooks My Nepenthe and Plum Gorgeous (reviewed here in 2011) “The Cook and Her Farmer will have their glory once their oyster restaurant opens, [but for now] they’re gaining lots of exposure through Kitchener’s popular pop-up markets.”
Steele agrees. “It’s helped us build an audience of folks that we might not otherwise have reached, and given us a place where we can entertain our own list of friends and supporters,” she says. “It’s been a win-win situation for us. Sophia has also created a community feel and a Facebook group page where artisans can share their concerns, resources, and ideas—all priceless and not what happens in a stand-alone space, where there isn’t the give and take of working with others.”
Chang, 32, has long worked in food. She started at Baskin-Robbins in high school followed by Berkeley’s Virginia Bakery in college. Her first enterprise was a farmers’ market ice cream venture that lasted a summer. A latchkey kid—her Taiwanese immigrant parents toiled long hours mowing others’ lawns—she grew up feeding two hungry brothers. Chang made quintessential American classics such as casseroles and one-pot meals, which she found through a free trial of the magazine Taste of Home. “The recipes were simple, nearly fail-proof, and I was proud I could cook foods from scratch, since we’d primarily grown up on processed, canned food and fast food. When I learned to cook, my palate opened and so did my love for food, which now borders on obsession.”
Chang is looking for ways to expand her business. One idea is to join forces with neighboring Uptown Kitchen, another commercial kitchen with a community conscience just three blocks away. While Chang concedes that making a living from Oakland Kitchener is a challenge, she’s hopeful that it will succeed in a city that embraces new edible ventures.
“I’ve been told that Kitchener feels very ‘Oakland’: It isn’t particularly refined, it’s never pretentious, it’s very diverse and accepting, and it has strong roots in trying to do the right thing for the community,” she says. “People in Oakland respond very well to businesses that help people. It’s an underdog city that cheers on underdog businesses. That’s why Kitchener thrives here: It’s a business that helps those who struggle to make it get a leg up in a competitive and daunting food world.”
THE BERKELEY KITCHENS
Given Berkeley’s reputation as a gourmet ghetto, it’s a wonder there isn’t a modern food-production facility showcasing local chefs and artisans around town. But that may be about to change. A long-neglected, historic, brick building at the corner of West Berkeley’s Eighth and Carlton streets is getting a major makeover, potentially poised to become a thriving food production hub in the area. Currently wrapping up construction, the project is slated to house at least 13 (think a baker’s dozen) commercial kitchens under one roof, each individual space leased to an enterprising edible entrepreneur, with communal areas where these food producers can pool ideas and host group events.
The ambitious undertaking, tentatively dubbed the Berkeley Kitchens, is the brainchild of property developer and building co-owner Jonah Hendrickson, who previously helped transform a West Oakland building into studio spaces for artists. A sculptor by profession, Berkeley-native Hendrickson understands the importance of having a space to call one’s own to create a successful small business. “There’s such strong demand for local food, it just made sense to provide this kind of opportunity for food producers in the area who want a place to call home,” says Hendrickson, who was barraged by local edible entrepreneurs desperate for space when he was vetting potential tenants for the Oakland artists’ studios.
He’s been inundated with interest in his new cooking-centric venture, too, from food folk who want to set up shop in the two-story facility, which will house kitchen spaces between 500 and 1,200 square feet in size. Each unit comes equipped with a commercial hood and sinks; tenants provide his or her own stove, fridge, tables, and storage—along with innovative edible ideas.
Conveniently located just a few blocks from Berkeley Bowl West and Rocket Restaurant Resource, a kitchen supply store, the former Standard Die & Tool Company facility more recently housed an art collective. Hendrickson hopes that this incoming crop of creative souls will develop their own camaraderie around a shared fascination with food and once again invigorate this corner of West Berkeley.
At press time, leases weren’t finalized for the coveted kitchen slots, but food businesses likely to be in the mix include caterers, bakers, and mobile food vendors. The space especially appeals to businesses that have outgrown shared commercial kitchen spaces but lack the capital to buy their own place.
A case in point is Gail Lillian, who owns the successful food truck Liba Falafel. Lillian intends to inhabit one of the Berkeley Kitchen spaces that opens outward to a potential retail space. “This is a step up for Liba Falafel because it’s nearly impossible to find a vacant kitchen space [that isn’t] dingy and over-populated. My goal as a business owner is to have a space where I can make uncompromising decisions about how I use the space as we grow.”
Lillian is eager for a kitchen of her own, but as a former tenant at Artisan Kitchen and current space renter in a catering company’s commissary not far from the new food facility, she knows firsthand the value of shared kitchen quarters. “At the Berkeley Kitchens, I’m thrilled at the prospect of maintaining the community aspect by sharing a hallway with other vendors, but also being able to close our door and operate independently,” says Lillian, who is working toward opening her first brick-and-mortar business, likely in Oakland, and needs the production space this commissary kitchen will provide for her new venture.
“The city welcomes our presence and has been very helpful,” says Hendrickson. “There’s tremendous potential for this ‘plug and play’ facility to add to the vibrancy of this community. It’s a natural fit for Berkeley and ironic that a quality food production site hasn’t happened sooner,” he says. “Any time a cluster of talented types comes together it can create tremendous synergy and opportunity for business and for the neighborhood. This could well be a model for other cities.”
CROSSROADS CAFÉ COLLECTIVE
First came a bold, colorful mural, then Phat Beets Produce started running a Saturday farmers’ market in front of 942 Stanford Street, a long overlooked little building on a triangle plot in a modest North Oakland neighborhood. Earlier this year Crossroads Café opened its doors, serving fresh, wholesome chow courtesy of the worker-owned collective that formed to get this nascent food business off the ground. The collective came together with the assistance of Phat Beets, a food justice group that seeks to provide affordable, healthy, local food to North Oakland residents. Up next: An incubator kitchen program designed to help a diverse group of underemployed Oakland residents find their feet in the food world.
On the second day of a soft opening in January, local residents streamed into the tiny, 10-seater café for coffee, barbecue chicken or tofu sandwiches, and kale salads. One cooperative member was still stenciling a sign on the building as others worked behind the counter tackling typical startup kinks. But this former 1920’s train dispatch and one-time hot-dog house was clearly showing signs of life as a community meeting place after decades of neglect.
Restoring the space has been a hands-on affair. Collective member Leon Dockery, a sculptor, builder, and sign-writer, worked with a group of disadvantaged youth through the grassroots group PUEBLO to renovate much of the building. They helped refinish chairs and tables and constructed the café’s wood and tile countertop. The collective raised a chunk of money toward the building upgrade via the crowd-sourcing site Indiegogo.
The café features food with a global focus courtesy of collective members. Dockery is known for his barbecue, former New Mexican Martin Ward brings a southwest feel to his food, and Misako Kashima and Ikumi Ogasawara specialize in vegan Japanese fare. Manning the kitchen on a regular basis is Keawe Aquarian, who returned home to Oakland after a stint behind the stoves in Montreal.
The kitchen will also incubate micro-businesses run by local residents. Food makers currently under consideration for the program include former Growing Justice Institute fellow Billy Page of Divine Raw Foods; vegan Ethiopian food producer Sirgout Aga; and Meso-American vinegar maker, Francisco Jimenez. Page, who has been serving up raw vegan meals at the East Bay Church of Religious Science and West Oakland Senior Center, hopes to transition full-time to making food. The incubator program at Crossroads may help him get there. “The Crossroads Café is an island, one of the few restaurants in the area, in a highly visible spot,” notes Page. “My hope is I can build a new audience there, grow my business, and benefit from the resources and support of a collective. It’s a chance to share my food philosophy with different people, too.”
The new café collective, say members, has potential beyond serving up good grub in an underserved area. “I see this place as so much more than a café,” says Leon Dockery, whose son Milon Dockery-Lee and his son’s mother, Michele Lee, are also collective members. “It could provide employment opportunities for people and allow local residents to network during these uncertain economic times. In that way, crossroads is a really fitting name.” ♣
Artisan Kitchen & Café Richmond:
865 Marina Bay Pkwy, #33, Richmond, 510.235.2323,
Oakland Kitchener: 372 24th St, Oakland. Open to the public for pop-ups on the third Tuesday of every month. 510.835.5885, facebook.com/KitchenerOAK
The Berkeley Kitchens:
2701 8th St, Berkeley
Crossroads Café & Collective:
942 Stanford Ave, Oakland
Phat Beets Produce: phatbeetsproduce.org