Kitchens for hire grow as a small business idea, new-business incubator
By JOE BEL BRUNO
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — What pushed Priscilla Maddox was the relentless smell of vanilla.
Maddox was toying with launching a cookie line after retiring from her 36-year hospital care job, but was overwhelmed by the vanilla smell in her apartment. When she couldn’t find a kitchen to rent, she started a rent-a-kitchen that has become a small-business incubator for everyone from a fudge maker to a twosome baking gourmet dog food.
“Now we call ourselves missionaries because we’re helping people following their dreams,” Maddox said.
Kitchen for Hire, the Brooklyn-based business she opened in 2000 with partner Joan Reid, put Maddox’s cookie line dream on hold. The women set up in a cramped storefront that was previously home to a number of restaurants that never seemed able to stay in business. And for the past eight years, the 10-burner stove, refrigerators, freezers and mixers they inherited from the previous tenant have been put to good use.
Across the country, from Austin to Los Angeles to Chicago, renting commercial kitchens by the hour has become a cottage industry. And as the nation’s economy has begun to weaken, many newly-unemployed home cooks are looking to those kitchens for a new line of work.
The kitchen rental companies are a for-profit spin on an already well tested idea. Food-business incubators, many affiliated with universities and non-profits, help farmers and entrepreneurs with business development plans, market research and, in some cases, manufacturing.
For those that come to Kitchen for Hire, be prepared to get a big serving of advice before you’re allowed to turn on the oven. Maddox is not shy about telling potential customers that their business strategy isn’t right, labels aren’t catchy enough or the food just isn’t marketable.
At least that’s what happened to Amanda Jones, who first approached Kitchen for Hire about two years ago with the idea of starting a fudge company.
“They refused to rent to me at first because they thought I wasn’t ready,” Jones said. “Turns out they were dead on. They gave me advice and helped me develop the product.”
After about a year of perfecting everything from product packaging to a business plan, Jones now operates Brooklyn Fudge — which is sold in stores around New York City. The business is now enough to sustain her after spending what she calls “11 years in the corporate world.”
But, that doesn’t mean running your own business is easy. Jones comes into the kitchen a few times a week during slower periods — and most every day around the holidays — spending about five hours putting together some 420 pieces of fudge with flavors like “Wasabi Pecan” and “Orange Almond.”
Jones is probably among the more successful of Maddox and Reid’s customers — which have in the past covered everything from bottlers of Jamaican hot sauce to aspiring beef jerky makers.
“Priscilla and Joan didn’t have it easy coming up the way they did, and they are really all about giving back,” she said.
Maddox and Reid spent $60,000 of their own savings to open their business, which is also open to families who want to cook for events such as weddings or family reunions, along with fledgling entrepreneurs. They have a few dozen regular customers and even more before holidays.
Customers at most kitchens spend about $20 per hour to rent the space, and in many cases need to purchase insurance that could run a few hundred dollars per year. Jones spends about $25 an hour for the kitchen rental, and product and kitchen insurance is about $600 a year.
Another thing the shared-use kitchens have in common is their hours.
“Its a 24/7 operation,” said Alexis Leverenz, who opened Kitchen Chicago after leaving Wall Street investment bank Merrill Lynch with dreams of starting her own business. “People come in here at all times of the day and night, and it is thrilling to watch them trying to start their own businesses. They are fascinating people.”
One reason that shared-use kitchens are picking up in popularity is that those looking to start a food related business can’t do it at home.
Federal, state and local laws make it illegal to use home kitchens to produce most kinds of food for sale. Some states have exemptions, but for the most part the production of food for a business must be done in a licensed kitchen that is regularly inspected.
For some customers, it’s marketing a family recipe. Danny and Marie Lena of Chicago started out using Chicago Kitchen to start Papa Lena’s Healthy Foods.
They started their business in 2006 with handed-down recipes for veggie chips flavored with Italian-style peppers and other flavors. Papa Lena’s now sells its roasted red bell pepper chips, spicy hot poblano chips and other flavors over the Internet and in regional stores and was even featured by Oprah Winfrey’s radio program on XM Satellite Radio.
Leverenz said she has a constant stream of interest since opening three years ago and has even gotten some calls from people interested in starting their own rental kitchens.
One such telephone call helped convince Soraiya Nagree in Austin to strike out on her own. She and her husband opened Kitchen Space about four months ago in a 2,100 square-foot building they bought in the East Austin area.
They’ve outfitted Kitchen Space with three main areas — a demonstration kitchen, catering kitchen and a baking kitchen — all with stainless steel appliances for the few dozen customers that have already signed on. They also introduced a bit of technology to the concept, allowing customers to schedule their kitchen time online and opening up an adjacent center where e-mail and other business can be done.
“This place really does run itself,” she said. “For us its a business, but for others its an incubator for their own business dreams. It all kind of meets here.”
On the Net:
Kitchen For Hire: http://www.kitchenforhire.com
Kitchen Space: http://www.thekitchenspace.com
Kitchen Chicago: http://www.kitchenchicago.com
Brooklyn Fudge: http://www.brooklynfundge.com
Papa Lena’s: http://www.papalena.com
Published in The Messenger 5.27.08