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Cooking by the hour: Kitchen-commissary supports food startups

About five years ago, Joe Henderson and his brother Jeff were competing on the barbeque circuit when they were approached by someone who had tasted their meats and wanted them to cater an event.

That inspired the brothers to try and start a catering business. While they had previously just operated out of their own kitchens and backyards, Joe Henderson knew that health regulations were different for restaurants and caterers.

The Creative Cookery co-owner Joe Henderson planned to open a catering business before pivoting to open a kitchen-commisary. Photo by Eric Berger

The Creative Cookery co-owner Joe Henderson planned to open a catering business before pivoting to open a kitchen-commisary. Photo by Eric Berger

He contacted the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and learned that they needed a commercial kitchen that had passed inspection. A health department employee recommended they seek out a kitchen-commissary.

Henderson asked for a list of such places.

There aren’t any, the staff member said.

And with that, the brothers’ idea for starting a barbeque-catering company morphed into opening a kitchen-commissary in Fenton, The Creative Cookery.

As more people during the past decade have tried to start businesses selling food items in non-traditional ways — food trucks, farmers markets, food delivery via mobile apps, prepared meal packages — a new market has opened up: professional kitchens that rent space by the hour to food vendors.

“You can’t get any more low-cost than this,” Henderson said. “You can come in here and start a business for next to nothing, and grow.”

The commissary is part of a growing trend of food vendors who want to avoid the overhead costs of renting a brick-and-mortar space and purchasing costly equipment that often sinks new restaurants. The founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick, recently invested in a $525 million Indian business, Rebel Food Pvt, a cloud-kitchen company that rents space to restaurateurs who focus on delivering food via mobile apps.

Henderson, whose day job is in information technology, spent two years researching other kitchen commissaries and connected with an owner in Indianapolis, Indy’s Kitchen. He made three trips there, and owner Linda Gilkerson educated him on what equipment he would need, how the hourly model works and how to manage membership, among other tips. Henderson is now part of a Facebook group with owners of 400 such kitchens around the United States.

Henderson, who co-owns the business with his wife, Shirley, originally envisioned opening the commissary in Maplewood or somewhere closer to the center of St. Louis, but they couldn’t find the sort of space they sought. Instead, they opened in July 2017 in Fenton, near their home.

Their first customer was starting a business offering packaged spices.

Henderson declined to say how much they invested, but a customized kitchen can cost more than $250,000, according to the business magazine Inc.

The Creative Cookery

Megan Rice, co-owner of Misters Bake Shop, said using the kitchen-commissary has helped to get the business off the ground without the costs of a brick-and-mortar shop. Photo courtesy of Misters Bake Shop

They leased a space that had been a tanning salon but was now empty, with damaged flooring and drywall. It required significant renovation, but the upside was that it had plenty of air conditioning and power capacity because it had been used for tanning beds.

They also had to obtain the proper permits from St. Louis County. Henderson said the Cookery was the first such shared kitchen in the area, so public officials “didn’t know how to treat us, per se. They thought we were a restaurant and didn’t know what they were doing, basically, so we had to jump through some hoops with planning and zoning.”

The number of Cookery customers — or as Henderson calls them, “members” — started trickling in. By month five, they had broken even. They now have about 35 members.

“It was a gamble. We spent a lot of money to build this space, and we hoped people were going to come,” he said.

That growth meant Henderson had to table his barbeque-catering company and even stop competing in barbeque events. But he was fine with that, he said, because he likes the business of helping entrepreneurs. He views the Cookery — which offers a kitchen rental at $18/ hour — as more than just a space but rather an incubator for small businesses. For example, the Hendersons help members to obtain business licenses and health permits.

“Otherwise, if someone is interested in coming to our kitchen, it can take them three months before they weave through all that paperwork to get going,” he said.

Sacha Quernheim, a chef, had been using a commercial kitchen in St. Louis for her business, Red Zucchini, but she said it was too crowded and wasn’t always clean. About a year ago, she switched to the Cookery. Quernheim offers personal chef, meal prep and catering services. She often caters brunches — bananas foster French toast, huevos rancheros, crepes Suzette — at luxury apartment complexes around St. Louis.

But she needs a commercial kitchen for only five to eight hours each day, three times each week.

“The way that Cookery has been set up is they do everything for us. They do the heavy cleaning; they supply the chemicals. It’s really more cost-effective to stay there rather than to build my own kitchen,” she said.

That’s a common reason why chefs seek out shared kitchens, said Ashley Colpaart, founder and CEO of the Food Corridor, a company that provides software to assist with scheduling and billing to the Cookery and about 140 other shared kitchens around the country.

It’s part of “a sharing economy and access economy trend that is happening, where access to infrastructure and resources has become more important than ownership,” said Colpaart, whose company is based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“A lot of people have a dream of starting a food business. They can either be all-in and put everything on the line, or they can dip their toe in the water by renting space in their off time and having a lot less overhead and commitment in the opening days,” she added. “It gives them a pathway to success that is less risky.”

While using a shared kitchen costs less than building one, the option is not entirely without challenges or risks. In 2018, Pilotworks, a restaurant incubator that rented out commercial kitchen space around the country, abruptly closed, leaving hundreds of member-companies around the country homeless.

In a shared kitchen, chefs must also, of course, share the space with others, which means they have to ensure that they book the place with enough time before an event and contend with “new people who have not worked in a kitchen before and don’t know how to deal with the sinks,” said Quernheim.

“It’s like having roommates in an apartment — you don’t get along with all of your roommates; you like some better than others,” said Megan Rice, the co-owner of Misters Bake Shop, which uses the space to create its savory hand pies, sweet shortbreads and other treats.

But Quernheim and Rice have become friends, and they both describe the issues inherent to a shared kitchen as small inconveniences that are outweighed by the cost savings and the chance to meet others in the industry.

The Cookery is open 24 hours a day and has two commercial kitchens. Each member has an assigned access code to use the space, so the Hendersons do not need to be there. There is a $50 application fee, which covers the cost of a kitchen orientation provided by the Hendersons.

For Joe and Shirley, the biggest challenge and the most rewarding part of their venture has been acting as more of an incubator than they initially envisioned, Joe said. Ideally, they would like to see members “graduate onto other things, like a caterer to get big enough to start a food truck. . . . We like to see people move onto bigger and better things.”

That’s the goal for Rice. She and her boyfriend, Preston Blaine, were living in Hollywood, California, and wanted to open a business offering savory hand pies, such as empanadas and turnovers. But on the coast, the costs “were just astronomical,” she said.

In April they decided to move to Blaine’s hometown, St. Louis. Within a week, they connected with Joe Henderson and shortly thereafter starting using the Cookery. There are competitors in the area — Saint Louis University’s Shared Use Kitchen and STL Food Works — but Rice said she picked the Cookery because Henderson was the first person who responded and the “pricing was really, really fair.”

“Especially coming from California, I was really blown away at how much [less] it would be,” she said.

Rice sells her products at the Tower Grove Farmers Market and other markets, so she also liked that the Cookery was open for 24 hours each day, which allowed her to bake in the early morning. She uses it about 40 hours each month.

For Rice and others who use the space, “if it weren’t available, certainly we wouldn’t be able to do it because we don’t have that capital to go out and immediately get a brick-and-mortar,” she said.

Still, she and Blaine did spend thousands of dollars to launch their business, and they were nervous about the investment. They now have a number of regular customers, including people who want orders for parties.

“It’s definitely gone better the first six months than I had hoped for,” said Rice.

By next summer or fall, she said she would like to have a food truck and then use the Cookery for some prep work but for fewer hours. Eventually, she would like to have her own kitchen.

“[Joe] is super supportive of everyone in there and takes a genuine interest in what everyone is doing,” Rice said. “You really feel like he is rooting for everyone to get out of there and get their own brick-and-mortar.”

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