March 31, 2014
Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist never thought that one day they would be running one of the country’s most successful kitchen incubators. In part, that’s because until a few years ago the idea of kitchen incubator was foreign to most people – including those in the food industry. So how did they end up creating the model that other incubators look to emulate? For them it all comes down to one thing.
If you look at Singer’s and Gilchrist’s careers, there’s one main theme running through them – community. After college Gilchrist worked in the food industry in various restaurant positions trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could. Gilchrist, on the other hand, worked mainly in the nonprofit sector. They knew one another through Singer’s brother and often talked about how their neighborhood in Washington DC lacked a good restaurant. What they envisioned was a place that would help bring the community together and be a cornerstone in that neighborhood. So together they opened the Blind Dog Café.
That café achieved its goals of serving great food and being a neighborhood gathering spot so well that they were soon approached with the idea of expanding to a second location. They realized the only way to make the second location work financially is if they had a central kitchen where they could prep a lot of the menu items but as they looked around they couldn’t find any commercial kitchen space that met their needs. Ideally, they realized, what they wanted was about 500 sq. feet of space to work in but everything available on the market was 5x that size which is more than either of them wanted to take on. “It would have cost of thousands of dollars,” Gilchrist remembers.
At one point they did find a shared kitchen space – a large commercial kitchen where they could sublease part of the space – but right as they were preparing to move in the lease-holder backed out. What if, they thought, they take over the lease. Between the two of them, they had plenty of friends in the industry and who were also struggling with finding space to work so they decided to create a shared kitchen space.
“The original idea wasn’t an incubator,” Gilchrist says, “but then after we opened it we realized ‘how do we share this space. And how do we help out ourselves and those people we’re sharing our space with?” They realized that the success of the kitchen was dependent on the success of the entrepreneurs working in that space and that’s when the kitchen went from being a shared space to an incubator. “We started to problem-solve and add all these value-added services,” Gilchrist says. “We call ourselves a kitchen incubator because we help the entrepreneurs throughout the process.”
Singer and Gilchrist not only make sure the kitchen equipment is running smoothly and linens are washed, but they also realized that one of the biggest problems their members were running into was not being able to get the same breaks on pricing that larger companies could. So they contacted wholesale providers, design professionals, and business services organizations and negotiated group rates for the members in their incubator.
The incubator also tries to help get their members’ products to market. “It’s incredibly hard to get your food products into stores,” Gilchrist says. “And it’s not the easiest thing in the world to apply to 20 farmers markets and not get into one of them. So we work on developing relationships with catering opportunities, farmers’ markets, small local markets, events, and we connect our members with them. We also have tastings and events at our space where we invite buyers to.”
Union Kitchen DC is currently maxed out with 55 member businesses operating out of the space. That means upwards of 150 people a week in and out of the kitchen. “Building community has been the basis for all of this,” Gilchrist says of the kitchen’s success. “We started our café because our neighborhood didn’t have something like that and we saw a need. We believe in building the community you want to live in. Build a community you want to live in. So we set out about doing that.”
The model has proven so successful that Singer and Gilchrist have been approached by other kitchen spaces to share their knowledge, experience and wisdom but right now Gilchrist says their focus and attention is in DC. In part because they’re expanding Union Kitchen DC to a second location in order to be able to meet demand and grow an even strong artisan food community in DC.
*All photos were graciously shared by Union Kitchen DC. To learn more about Union Kitchen DC, you can visit their website here. They also produced a wonderful short video that helps tell the story about Union Kitchen DC and what makes it so special which you can access by clicking here.