Utilities and Media & Marketing

Will cook, need kitchen: Bakers, caterers struggle to find space to bake-legally

October 31, 2005

Both women know they have sweettoothed fans who want to buy their goodies, but because of new state regulations, they are finding it difficult to deliver their products to a hungry market.

At the beginning of this year, a law took effect requiring that most food for sale to the public be prepared in commercial kitchens with certified food handlers. The regulation has effectively kicked Castillo, Johnson and dozens of other small caterers and bakers out of their production facilities-in this case, home and church kitchens.

"I've really been handicapped quite a bit," said Johnson, who started selling her treat as Marsha's Supreme Bread Pudding after fine-tuning the recipe for years based on feedback from friends and coworkers. Now disabled by a knee injury, Johnson said she'd like to turn her baking hobby into a living. But "everything's at a screeching halt."

Johnson and others with small, startup, food-related businesses usually don't have the capital resources necessary to set up their own commercial kitchens. After searching to no avail for a kitchen to rent part time, they are trying to start a cooperative commercial kitchen. Common in other parts of the country but relatively unknown here, the fully stocked kitchens rent time by the hour to people like Johnson and Castillo.

So far, they've found a willing cadre of would-be renters and acknowledgement that the need for such a facility exists, but no one willing to underwrite startup costs.

"Everything is at a standstill," said Wanda Fabregas, a west-side resident who, with a partner, sought to open a small catering company but quickly discovered a lack of available kitchen space.

Fabregas found one local building owner willing to house the kitchen and set it up with equipment, but he ultimately couldn't be convinced enough people would use the kitchen to make it viable.

The state regulations that took effect require most food-related businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants and school cafeterias, to have at least one person on staff who has passed a stateapproved test for safe food-handling practices. Churches are exempt and don't have to employ a certified food handler, so their kitchens are off limits for small for-profit caterers.

Exact laws vary from state to state, but most have regulations in place that effectively limit or prohibit the use of home kitchens for commercial food preparation. That's given rise to a market for shared kitchens. Nationwide, many such kitchens are run as cooperatives or sponsored by not-for-profit community development associations. Many are in rural areas, where they cater to farmers who want to prepare and sell the food they grow.

In urban areas, some kitchens are forprofit enterprises. One in Chicago has a coffee shop and café that sells some of the products made by the cooks who rent the kitchen space.

Without Kitchen Chicago, on the city's north side, Blue Cat Candy Co. wouldn't exist, said Sarah Steele, Blue Cat's owner. Starting the business this spring was contingent on being able to find a kitchen to rent until she could save money to open her own kitchen, she said. Blue Cat sells to small shops in the Chicago area, and is working on getting its confections into a local grocery chain.

Kitchen Chicago opened in April after owner Alexis Frankfort looked, to no avail, for a commercial kitchen where she could start her own bakery. Instead, she found a new business idea.

"I found a lot of other people like me," said Frankfort, adding Chicago laws prohibit selling food made in home kitchens. "It seemed obvious to do this instead."

Using a personal loan and a bank line of credit, Frankfort spent about $70,000 opening Kitchen Chicago. Those who use the kitchen pay an average of $18 to $20 per hour for the space. With the kitchen rented out for 10 to 12 hours most days, response has been better than expected so far with little more than word-of-mouth advertising, Frankfort said.

During the summer, several farmer's market vendors used the kitchen. But as markets are winding down, holiday business is picking up, Frankfort said. She's also found an unexpected source of customers-chefs opening new restaurants who want to use the kitchen for training or tasting events before their restaurant kitchens are ready.

At least one person in Indianapolis thinks the concept could turn a profit here. Sharon O'Donoghue, executive director of the not-for-profit Central Indiana Women's Business Center, believes there's money to be made with a shared kitchen. Caterers and bakers would rent it most of the time. Renting it for cooking classes, cooking-themed parties or to individuals who need extra kitchen space on a one-time basis could fill the gaps, she said.

"To build the business, you have to find ways to maximize revenue because you have those fixed expenses" such as utilities and equipment, she said. "We've been spreading the word and planting the seed, but nobody's bit yet."

O'Donoghue doesn't see a shared commercial kitchen as a luxury. Many independent caterers and cooks such as Johnson and Castillo are women who turn to cooking and baking as a way to help support themselves and their families. Often, they are the heads of their households, and cooking allows them to make money without spending a lot of time away from home, she said.

There are at least a few dozen such businesses locally now, but O'Donoghue said she believes the presence of a shared commercial kitchen would encourage the formation of more such micro enterprises.

Indianapolis City Market is studying the idea of a shared commercial kitchen, but it's part of its longer-range plans and wouldn't be open for at least a couple of years.

For local caterers and cooks, the need is immediate.

"Next month would be my busy month," said Castillo, owner of Jazzy Doris Pie Co., noting the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Castillo has been able to keep churning out some Jazzy Doris pies, thanks to an arrangement to use the ovens at the Jazz Kitchen on the north side, where she works one day a week. She sells the pies, somewhere around a dozen a week, mostly to businesses at the corner of 54th and College, including Yat's, the Jazz Kitchen and Northside News and Café.

But Castillo, who worked at the nowclosed Broad Ripple Pie Co., believes she could sell as many as 200 pies a week if she had the facilities to make them. Schools, corporate cafeterias and hospitals are ripe for picking.
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