Institutional Dining: Kitchens in Demand for Cottage Food Producers
It’s an old story.
You have a great recipe for the very best salsa, your grandma’s apple muffins, mom’s spaghetti sauce. You’ve made it for your friends and family one million times.
“You should bottle this and make a million dollars!” they cry out.
There’s just one problem (OK, more than one, but stay with me, here). You don’t have anywhere to make it.
Well, you have your home kitchen, so you start there. And thanks to a 2015 update to Minnesota Cottage Foods Law, producers of baked foods, pickles, canned items, jams, jellies and other foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower can now produce food out of their home kitchens, legally. Verboten are many other condiments, any custard or egg-based desserts or pastries, fresh foods of any kind—popcorns, many salsas, hummus, most prepared foods such as salads, sandwiches, lemonade, ice tea, etc., and some bitters and shrubs if the PH is not low enough.
Libby Mehaffey, of Weeknight Kitchen, a home-delivery meal service, started her food business the way many people do—out of her home kitchen, and back then, illegally. And when her business grew large enough to afford a commercial kitchen space—a seemingly good problem to have—she struggled mightily to find a place that she could both afford, and that could accommodate her business to the specifications she was looking for.
Instead, what she found was a “crazy kitchen in St. Paul,” where she drove to daily, unloaded all of her equipment, prepped, cooked, cleaned up, packaged, loaded it all back up again, and finally made her deliveries. Then, she repeated the process, everyday. For those of us who have been there, it’s a familiar procedure.
She found another kitchen in a VFW, but the building was sold, and she lost her lease. She searched other options, and simply could not find another kitchen south of the river that would not make her commute untenable.
“Basically, I had to build a kitchen, or quit,” Mehaffey says.
So she built a kitchen, Weeknight Kitchen the commissary, due to open by the time this article goes to print.
While some cottage-food producers get lucky and land a clean, reasonably priced, and well-equipped church or other commercial kitchen space, like Patti Heimbold of her wildly popular eponymous gourmet nut company, Patti’s Nuts—many producers are not so lucky.
Ruth Thillen of St. Christopher’s Church in Roseville says her church’s experience in trying to get kitchen renters has been “a study in rejection.”
“While the Ramsey County inspections people are very happy with our space for on-site use, they can’t license anyone else to cook here due to a shortage of refrigeration. We have neither funding nor space for a walk-in cooler, but if we did have that, we’d be busy. We average about one disappointed trying-to-get-started-cook per month, ” Thillen says.
Dana Steenberg of the locally based Angry Tomato Salsa also started out in his home kitchen, but now that he’s on the hunt for commercial space, finds many shared kitchens, “overbusy, overscheduled, and not well kept.”
“When you’re spending between $600 and $1,000 a month, you don’t want to have to spend an hour cleaning before [you even start cooking].”
He’s been doing his homework, and feels like the spaces available locally could be broken down into tiers: “Entry level” spaces cost about $12 to $16 hourly, and he says he found few of them to be well kept or managed. When the hourly rate goes up to $17 to $22, vendors typically must commit to a one-year lease, and they’re usually better kept and managed, but they can still have a lot of traffic.
But his ideal situation would be a $600 to $800 monthly rate, with approximately six to eight other vendors who share a food-crafter mentality so that camaraderie between vendors could be maintained. Other conditions include a large physical space with plenty of storage for keeping equipment and materials full-time. He’s seriously considering going into the Weeknight Kitchen space when it opens, and he encourages other cottage food makers to do their homework.
“If I would have signed the first [space], it would have been a great mistake,” he adds.
Mehaffey says it’s a bit of a myth that Minnesota is particularly light on kitchen space for small food vendors, or that our state is particularly tough on guidelines or restrictions for those makers.
“The regulation is about safety,” she says. “If you want to make scarves, great. But if you want to work in food, there are a lot more hurdles, because there is a lot more risk involved.”
In addition to her own commissary kitchen, Mehaffey mentions City Food Studios, Dot’s Grey Kitchen, Kindred Kitchen and The Lynhall as shared commissary kitchen spaces that all have a “good grasp” on what it takes to offer the service.
Weeknight Kitchen, having been designed with her own small business in mind (her business will operate in the space), includes a 1,500-square foot overall space with multiple designated work stations, most equipment and fixtures on wheels, plus an event and retail space for special events, available at no extra cost to vendors.
Is there such a thing as a “perfect” commercial kitchen space? The cottage food production, and its necessarily descendant industry, shared kitchens, is booming enough to warrant—you guessed it—its own software. The Food Corridor is a software built specifically for shared-use kitchens to simplify their scheduling, billing and food business management. One of the handy features included in the service is a free, curated list of the top commercial kitchens in the country.
While perfection may not exist, you might be wise to try and find it anyway.
“A lot of food cottage food vendors’ “kitchens have grown into a salsa-making factory and their wives are losing their marbles,” says Mehaffey.
If for no other reason that to save your marriage: Better get to searching.