From Dream to Plate: FEED Kitchens
By Vanessa Herald | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
It takes more than a good recipe to launch a successful food enterprise. A tangy bottle of local ketchup, an indulgent box of chocolates, or the steaming dish served to you through the window of your favorite food cart— each underwent a complicated process en route to your mouth.
The behind the scenes work to starting a local food enterprise is not glamorous: think licensing, recipe testing, locating a commercial kitchen space, food safety certification, and lots of paperwork. The hurdles can look insurmountable and deter many from the dream of launching a food enterprise.
Enter FEED Kitchens. Owned and operated by the Northside Planning Council, this shared-use commercial kitchen incubator is integral to supporting new food ventures, growing existing businesses, and strengthening our regional food system.
Stepping into the front door of this industrial kitchen space in Madison’s north side, it’s immediately apparent that this endeavor lives up to every word in its name: Food Enterprise & Economic Development Kitchens. Between an energetic gathering in the community meeting space, members preparing food on the deli line and folks chatting in the office, FEED Kitchens is more than just a business incubator and licensed kitchen facility; it’s a community hub.
Although the doors to this well-appointed commercial kitchen facility opened in November 2013, the idea began percolating years earlier. In 2008, members of the Northside Planning Council formally identified the need for a commercial kitchen to increase food security and opportunities for community entrepreneurship. With positive results from a feasibility study and a half-milliondollar federal Community Development Block Grant from the City of Madison, planning was officially under way. Five years later, FEED Kitchen’s doors opened to, in the words of FEED Kitchens Manager Adam Haen, “help people realize their small business dream through a low risk, low cost incubator.”
To use FEED Kitchens, commercial and casual members pay a small fee to become a member then rent kitchen space by the hour or rent storage in the walk-in cooler, freezer or dry storage. But the heart of FEED Kitchens’ mission is much more than just a commercial kitchen space. “The goal is to bring local people together with the local food system and provide a safe and clean place to produce the products they love, and share them with other people,” says Haen. FEED meets this mission by assisting with many of the less glamorous aspects of starting a food business, like record keeping and business licensing.
The 5,400-square-foot facility features five distinct kitchens: baking, hot deli prep, meat processing, produce preparation and processing, and a training kitchen. Each kitchen houses stateof- the-art equipment for high volume, efficient food production. The training kitchen is used by FEED’s “casual” members for personal culinary projects too unwieldy for a home kitchen, such as the wedding party that harvested fruit at a local orchard and transformed their haul into frozen fruit pies for their upcoming wedding celebration. Small educational groups, like Girl Scout troops earning culinary badges, rent this space, too. This kitchen is also home to two baking job skills training programs run by the River Food Pantry and Madison-Area Urban Ministry, which have already placed over 50 graduates into living-wage culinary jobs.
You might not think an 11-ounce bottle of ketchup can have a big impact on the local food system, but the 100 Mile Sauce Company demonstrates otherwise. This young business is passionate about extending the produce season in spicy ways to take advantage of the wide array of local vegetables. Sourcing more than 50,000 pounds of very local tomatoes for their ketchup, bloody mary mix, barbeque and hot sauces last year, co-owner Scott Kesling values this shared kitchen space for two reasons. The young company joined FEED Kitchens as a casual member, which “gave us the opportunity to test our recipes on a large scale and ramp up production at our own pace. This is integral for small businesses to figure out if their product is relevant without going bankrupt.” 100 Mile Sauce Company quickly proved a success and scaled up to a commercial membership and launched full production. “It allows local food makers a chance to succeed while minimizing financial risk,” Kesling says.
“We are also all working together at FEED Kitchens,” he continues, “and it’s a great support group to get your business off the ground.” This sense of community may be at the heart of FEED’s success incubating its commercial members. The requirement for a licensed commercial kitchen may bring these food carts, value-added food businesses and caterers together under one roof, but their collective knowledge drives everyone forward. “Older members mentor the new members. This is really a community of support to let people know they can do it,” adds Haen.
FEED does more than just incubate new businesses; it also increases community access to healthful, local foods. Each year the REAP Food Group Farm to School Program processes more than 30,000 pounds of locally grown produce for its snack program reaching 5,500 students in 300 classrooms of the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and it needs a commercial kitchen as a home base. “We love serving local vegetables to students, but processing them is an elaborate task that requires aligning lots of different details,” says Natasha Smith, REAP’s Farm to School Program director. “The FEED Kitchen serves our specific need for minimal processing, with a flexible schedule and storage space.”
Each Tuesday, Smith accepts roughly 1,000 pounds of raw produce for the week’s seasonal snack, ranging from concord grapes to asparagus to kohlrabi. After processing, the snacks and educational materials are delivered to 13 schools 33 weeks of the year. It is no small feat for this crew, who washes, sanitizes, processes and packages everything by hand or with the small-scale food processing equipment available on-site. FEED Kitchens allowed REAP to scale up the number of servings processed each week, increasing their ability to connect MMSD students with healthy snacks and foster an appreciation of local foods.
On the occasion the REAP snack program has leftover food, Smith simply emails the group’s mailing list, and someone will quickly purchase her excess product. “The kitchen really is a nice network of people working together,” reflects Smith. “From the food trucks to the bakery training program, everyone sharing the space helps each other out.” This sense of community may be the recipe for success for this nexus of the regional food system.
Although FEED focuses on small businesses, its presence is equally important to supporting other projects that increase access to healthy and local foods. Healthy Food For All recently started a food reclamation project to both reduce food waste and increase healthy options on local food pantry shelves. The group collects unused soup from Epic Systems’ kitchens and repackages the delicious meals into smaller, easy-to-deliver portions. This successful strategy increases food security through wholesome foods and requires a commercial kitchen space like FEED to make it happen.
There is still room to grow for FEED Kitchens. During the busiest months of 2015, facility use reached 25 percent of overall capacity, meaning there’s still room at the training table—and smoker and convection oven and walk-in cooler—for new food enterprises to make their dreams happen in this space. And that growth will continue: FEED Kitchens was recently awarded a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant to strengthen services to minority food entrepreneurs and increase connections with Wisconsin’s minority farming communities, such as Hmong and Latino growers.