In March, I was at a meeting in Champaign County, Ohio, when a woman asked me what I knew about community commercial kitchens.
Not much, I confessed, but enough to think they’re a great option for entrepreneurial small food processors and marketers.
Let’s say you have a great recipe for cheesecakes. You make them for every occasion and even give them as gifts. Pretty soon, people are asking if they could buy them from you.
A seed is planted. Could you make a living baking cheesecakes?
Well, probably not in any volume in your home kitchen, and probably not legally because of health department and other hoops you need to jump through to ensure food safety of any product you’re making and selling. And who can make the investment in a new addition to your home to house a commercial kitchen? What happens when the cheesecake market flops?
A commercial kitchen lets food entrepreneurs rent time in a licensed facility to develop and make their products. Some are set up as incubators, in the hopes that the fledgling small businesses grow big enough to set up their own shop.
I saw my first community commercial kitchen in 2006, at the Center for Innovative Food Technology’s Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green, Ohio. The center manages the nonprofit facility, which gives individuals access to a kitchen facility that maintains a baking and canning license and is approved by both the Wood County Health Department and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Currently, 30 businesses make use of the kitchen, producing such products as pickles, mustards, chocolates, rubs and spice mixes, salsas and sauces.
The entrepreneurs also get business planning advice, technical assistance and networking opportunities through CIFT.
Another community commercial kitchen that is frequently held up as a model in Ohio is the Food Manufacturing & Commercial Kitchen Facility operated through the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, or ACEnet, in Athens, Ohio.
One of the first in the country, this shared-use kitchen provides rented space for production, storage, refrigeration and distribution. Some of the food businesses also maintain business offices in ACEnet’s business incubation center.
And more nonprofit and for-profit kitchens are opening. A recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article, for example, listed four facilities in that city that are now open to the public to use.
Community commercial kitchens aren’t cheap to build or maintain — they need clear goals, committed leadership, and plans for long-term sustainability, especially after the first generation of organizers is out of the picture. Maybe a separate building isn’t needed, if a church or other community building could fit the bill.
You can’t just “build it and they will come,” and a market survey of all involved is essential before taking the next step.
But the timing might be right for a county or a village, or a private business person, or even the entrepreneurs through a co-op themselves, to consider a commercial kitchen venture. Local foods are hot, hot, hot.
And this geographic region has a growing market — a population with disposable income to support locally produced foods.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are certainly no strangers to food processing. It’s been a business backbone to the states’ food and agricultural base for more than a century. The knowledge base is here already, as are the farmers and growers.
So what do I think about community commercial kitchens? I think it sounds good enough to eat.