September 6, 2017

Finding & Making The Most Out Of Your Shared Kitchen Space (PODCAST)

Finding and effectively working in a shared kitchen space can be one of the hardest aspects of food business entrepreneurship. We talk with Rachael Miller of The Food Corridor in this podcast for tips on how to find a space to work in as well as what you can do to work happily and efficiently in that space.


Jennifer: We’re talking with Rachael Miller today of The Food Corridor. The Food Corridor connects commercial kitchen spaces with food entrepreneurs seeking rentable, licensed kitchen spaces. The platform includes tools like scheduling and booking, payment processing, and communication to support the ongoing relationship. Rachael, thank you so much for coming on today.

Rachael: Great, thanks for having me, it’s good to be here.

Jennifer: So, I want to start with as we begin today, I want to talk a little bit about the Food Corridor, how it works to solve a very real problem in the food industry. You know, what was the impetus for starting it, can you just give us a little bit of background behind it?

Rachael: Sure. One of my favorite parts about the Food Corridor is our story, it was started out of some academic research, which is I think really exciting to show the merger between academic life and real world, so our founder and CEO, Ashley Colpaart was doing PhD research at Colorado State University and she ended up getting into researching shared use kitchens and community kitchens and the history of them, and stumbling upon this really significant gap that we have in the US and actually around the world, and she found that there are so many … she actually found a couple things. So, there’s this enormous market gap, we found that there are often underutilized kitchen assets in a community that people don’t know about for a variety of reasons and we also found that kitchens that do exist are spending up to half a person’s salary a year managing kitchen clients, doing pretty noxious tasks doing things like invoicing often on paper, calendar management often still on paper, and then chasing down client documents like business licenses and health and safety certifications and really it just seemed like a little archaic and really inefficient, so Ashley was going through her research she really did see this enormous business opportunity.

And so, we started a couple years ago and we launched officially June of 2016 and we’ve been working to connect commercial kitchen spaces that are licensed in communities with food companies who need to rent out this space to prepare their goods.

Jennifer: So, you mentioned the term shared use kitchen, so let’s kind of, since we’re going to be talking about shared use kitchens and other components of that today, can we clear up some terminology first, because I get a lot of questions from listeners. What’s the difference between a shared use kitchen, an incubator kitchen, an accelerator kitchen, what do these mean?

Rachael: That’s a great question, especially for a food entrepreneur who’s looking to jump into a space and maybe they know they need a couple things but they don’t know what they should be looking for, and that’s really common from what we’ve seen. So, the three terms just to break it down, a shared use kitchen is really any kitchen that people can rent out to use or even collaboratively use as a co-op. So these are what we would call co-working spaces. Pretty simple, straight forward, there’s not a lot of bells and whistles. In a simple shared use kitchen, people rent out space, they control their own business, they manage their own market access and they go rent out the space, make their pizza, make their jams and jellies, wash their dishes, and then the kitchen bills them and that’s a pretty standard shared use kitchen model. Once it starts to get a little more integrated with programming, that’s where you start to use terms like incubator and accelerator.

An accelerator kitchen is shorter term, and this does translate into the general business start up world, too. An accelerator is usually for earlier stage companies they need a lot of hands on touching, they need a lot of coaching to get through the process, this might be someone who has done really well with their salsas, and by doing well, their friends love it and their families love it and they make it really well, but they don’t know exactly how to write a business plan or how to access a larger market or even how to get into that flirts farmer’s market. So that’s what you’re looking for in accelerator, is very defined programming and it’s really time bound. This is often a three to six month program that you’ll see entrepreneurs often graduate from at the end. So, you go in, it’s very intense, you work with professionals to get you to the next level and then you’re done and you might graduate into a shared use kitchen space or maybe you’ll go into an incubator.

That brings us to our third term, we talked about shared used kitchens, accelerators, and then incubators, which these are for growing and earlier stage companies as well, there is an element of programming and usually one of the greater benefits of being a member of an incubator is there’s an element of credibility that you get from being accepted into this community so you also are exposed to mentors and mentorship. And please know that this varies widely between kitchens, which is why it’s important when a food entrepreneur is touring a kitchen to see if this is the right fit for them that they do ask about resources that are offered by the kitchen and how the kitchen defines itself, really. So, does the kitchen think it’s an incubator, accelerator, and then how does each party define that?

Jennifer: And so then, kind of back to the previous question, so via the Food Corridor, would you say that most of the kitchens that are listed there and showcased there, are they shared use, are they incubator or a combination?

Rachael: It is across the board, it really is. We’re working with everyone from a restaurant or a bakery who has some underutilized kitchen space that they’re not running 24 hours a day, and they rent that out to someone who has figured out their business model, they’ve figured out their market, they just need a licensed space to rent and we’re working with some wonderful programs who are full incubators or accelerators. One of my favorite ones that I just blogged about recently is Hot Bread Kitchen in New York, and they work with a defined demographic in New York and it’s people who are still building to eventually find jobs and it’s often in bakeries, so they’re not only figuring out these culinary skills but really life skills as well. So, there’s a social component to it. And that’s, again, that’s not every kitchen. So it just depends on the mission of each kitchen.

Jennifer: And then just to be clear for listeners, you’re also nationwide, right? So, if there’s somebody listening here who’s from one side of the country and somebody from the other side of the country, they can utilize the Food Corridor. Obviously, there’s no guarantee, but they can utilize the food corridor to try and find kitchen space in their area.

Rachael: We are nationwide, and we’re also working in Canada.

Jennifer: Okay.

Rachael: So that’s an exciting expansion for us, we are not yet caught up to geographically search for kitchens, however I do have a lot of companies, we have a network on Facebook, it’s a private group called the network for incubator and commissary kitchens for shared use kitchen professionals asking questions and kind of collectively answering questions and I have a lot of food entrepreneurs who want to join that group, and it’s really not the right space for them, bu it’s interesting that their primary focus or reason for wanting to join the NICK is they’re looking for a kitchen in their area, which goes back to our first point in that there are so many underutilized kitchens around the country, we’re just trying to be that connector piece. So, at this point I would say yeah, reach out to us, we’re connecting kitchens and entrepreneurs every day. And it is nationwide.

Jennifer: That’s one of – just to have that resource, because I talk to folks, the biggest hurdle is … I mean you can’t get any of your licensing, you can’t get health permits, you can’t get anything and you can’t figure out your production until you have that space. And so, to be able to figure out that component of it is a huge piece of the puzzle for folks.

Rachael: Oh I think so, I think that it’s really daunting as well, because food law changes depending on where you are, state wise, county wise, and so to have a kitchen that can facilitate that relationship with the health inspector, to build out a commercial kitchen we’re talking anywhere from 250 thousand dollars upward, and it can go significantly upward. So, it really does help entrepreneurs get on their feet with the lowest startup cost.

Jennifer: I’m going to ask you a very open ended question because we talked about how there are different types of kitchen spaces but also even within those kitchens, they might have different resources available, and then we’re also comparing different state, county, country health laws. On the whole though, are there any recommendations you have as to what food entrepreneurs should be looking for or asking questions about the kitchen managers as they research to find the best kitchen rental for their business?

Rachael: Sure, this, boy, this really does depend on what a food company wants out of the relationship and what a kitchen can realistically offer. So, again a lot of these kitchens require a tour before they will take you on as a client, there’s often an application process, there’s a reason for that. If a food entrepreneur is trying a kitchen and they’re trying to figure out what a kitchen could offer them, definitely look at the relationship the kitchen has with their local health inspector. I think that everyone freaks out when you think about food health inspection, it is scary because your business is literally riding on that relationship. They’re not as scary as they seem, health inspectors are there for a reason and it’s a really good reason, it’s to keep your consumers safe and to protect you as a business owner.

If your kitchen and the kitchen manager can help facilitate that relationship, I think that that is something that is a huge plus for a company. If the kitchen is on good terms with the health inspector, that’s a great sign. If they’re a little maybe skittish about talking about it, or they are not … the health inspector is seen as kind of this evil entity, that might be a red flag for food entrepreneurs. Let’s see, another things is again, looking at what a food business would like to have in a slate of offerings from a kitchen, look at access to information. Is the kitchen manager uncertain about Cottage law or food temperature or sanitation resources. They should at least know where to point you. If they aren’t really sure about food safety resources, you should dig a little deeper and find out why. and then I would, let’s see … if you’re a food company that’s just jumping in, you’re going to ask about business programming, you’re going to ask about relationships in the community, do ask about kitchen growth. See where the kitchen wants to go, are they going to stay the same size they are, or do they have plans for expansion?

Jennifer: Oh that’s a good question!

Rachael: That might dictate how long you see yourself in that space. Look at programming, do they invite food entrepreneurs in to do classes for the community? Do they offer business programming for the entrepreneur? We’ve seen some shared use kitchens that have wonderful farmer’s markets, Hope & Main is a kitchen out in Rhode Island, and they have this great farmer’s market and their food entrepreneurs get additional exposure if they also go to the food market. And then resource buying. So, we just had a great question a couple days ago from a food entrepreneur who’s in the Midwest looking for some vegan ingredients, looking for some organic ingredients, which as we all know can be really expensive. And so does your kitchen offer a potential buying co-op option? Can you go in with the other baker who runs the kitchen out for the other hours and all buy your flower together?

And again, these aren’t all necessities, but that formula depends on what you’re looking for. Honestly, as a food entrepreneur who might just be starting out, you might not know what you need, which is I think very common and that’s okay. It’s awesome that you’re just taking the first step and touring a kitchen to expand your business. So ask about the other clients, see who else is working in that space.

Jennifer: You know, and I would add, because you talked about for example partnering from a buying perspective with the baker who uses the kitchen in the other hours, and that made me think to the scheduling, what hours is that kitchen or is that table that you would be renting, what hours is it available? Because that may dictate whether it’s going to work for you or not, if the only hours it’s available are between two AM and five AM, that may not work for your lifestyle.

Rachael: Definitely, yes thank you. That’s really pragmatic. When can you access the space? And some … how do I want to say this. Some kitchens have keyless entry keypads, some actually have hard keys which is a little scary id you lose your key, then you have to replace the whole system for the company. But do ask when you are allowed to be at the kitchen. The kitchens with 24 hour access are a great community asset, and we’re seeing more and more of those, so do ask about that.

Jennifer: So, you had mentioned … first of all, I want to just bring up, I loved the point that you brought up about health inspectors shouldn’t necessarily be seen as this real evil because they are providing the community with a huge asset with regards to safety, but it does also protect you as a business owner. I’ve always welcomed health inspectors into my kitchens, but I had never thought about it from that standpoint of no, having them in actually protects me as a business owner as well, so thank you for bringing that up, too.

Rachael: Oh, definitely. Again, it can be really daunting, but the sooner you just jump in and rip that band aid off and talk to your health inspector, the less scary it becomes, and I think that kind of business liability perspective, it’s an essential component to your risk and liability plan. And your insurance company who’s covering your business, this is important to them as well, so this is really a win, win, win.

Jennifer: Yeah. That’s a great way to look at it, thanks. You had mentioned obviously via the Food Corridor and via the Facebook group, NICK, you spent a lot of time interacting with kitchen space owners of all types. Based off of those interactions that you’ve had, what do you think that food entrepreneurs can do to really help solidify their relationship with the kitchen, the kitchen manager, the kitchen staff … if they find that kitchen they love, what can they do to really build and solidify that relationship?

Rachael: Sure, this list is so big but it’s so easy. It’s so easy, this is a working business relationship, but it’s also really personal. You’re co-sharing this space and it does get really intimate, right? You’re creating your livelihood as a business owner, and you’re doing it in someone else’s space. So, I would say for you as a food entrepreneur, have your business in order to the degree that you are aware of. So, if you know that you need your business licensing in order, come with your folder of documents ready to show the kitchen manager when you’re touring the space. Be aware of what you’re going to need to offer in that phone call with the kitchen manager, come with your documents, be ready to show that you are ready to cook and ready to sell to the public. And if you don’t know that, come with the questions to ask.

That’s a good starting point for that relationship. So, again I just think it’s important to understand that this is transactional, you’re paying someone to rent a space, but it is so much more than that. Shared use kitchens are such a key component of community building and of local entrepreneur growth and keeping local dollars in your community, and you can be a part of that if you’re really good tenants of your shared use kitchen. So, I think being as self sufficient as possible within your boundaries is helpful. And I think that the biggest point that has come up from talking to so many kitchen managers is that cleanliness goes a long way. We can talk pie in the sky about community and networking all we want, but you really need to wipe down your countertops. You really need to sweep up your space and be a humble and aware tenant. It’s really going to increase everybody’s experience.

Jennifer: You know, as you said that I flashed back to this … when I was working a shared use kitchen and it was one of these kitchens where, for example, there’s be multiple businesses in the space at the same time and we basically each had our own little tables to be working on. And just coming in one day with this huge list of stuff that had to get accomplished during my timeframe, and coming in to find out that the person who had been in that space right before me hadn’t cleaned it, I mean there was stuff all over the floor, the countertops, not just for the kitchen managers but for other people who might be working in that space with you and to build good relationships with them. I was ticked off that I had to spend half an hour cleaning this space before I could begin working in it. Yeah I guess it made me think, it’s not just the kitchen managers, it’s the other folks that you’ll be interacting with on a daily basis.

Rachael: Oh my gosh, that is a great example, yeah. It matters, right? Other people do affect you, and I think we’ve all worked in enough kitchens, or at least a lot of us have if you’re listening to this podcast, it’s really easy to get pretty aggro in the kitchen. We all know there’s really strong personality. But, sometimes you’ve just got to wipe that countertop that somebody didn’t clean up before you and it’s awful. But, then be that responsible tenant, talk to your kitchen manager, you suck it up that day, you wipe it down but as long as you … we’re all adults, right?

Jennifer: Act like it.

Rachael: Yeah. So, act like it, exactly. There was a kitchen I just toured in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cleveland Culinary … oh jeez. I’m going to forget their name. Cleveland Culinary Launching Kitchen. And they had several kitchen cooking spaces and there were entrepreneurs there at the same time and it just had such a nice flow about the kitchen. All the entrepreneurs knew about each other, they were excited about each other’s success stories, some of them had graduated recently out of the space, and it really did feel like everyone was kind of high fiving all day long. I think that speaks a lot to the caliber of the food entrepreneurs, as well as the kitchen manager, you can get that sort of culture in your kitchen.

Jennifer: You know, that’s a good point, the piece about culture because I feel now that I might scare folks away from the multi use kitchen simultaneous use. But also in the kitchen that I worked in, they didn’t have a buying program but basically the entrepreneurs all got together and said, “okay, we’re going to buy from this distributor, it’s a thousand dollar minimum for each order, let’s all go in on this,” so none of us had to shell out a thousand dollars, we could just buy what we needed and then get the delivery. And so kind of created a co-op model ourselves. And it was a wonderful community, you know of course anytime you interact with other people there will always be hiccups that happen along the way, but for the most part, getting into a kitchen like that that has a great culture can do a lot for you as a business owner in terms of resources and getting information, but also it’s nice not to always be working by yourself as an entrepreneur.

Rachael: Yes. Oh gosh, that’s a great point. I think that anyone who’s launched a business knows that it can be pretty lonely. You’re stuck in spreadsheets at three in the morning or you’re trying to get this business plan out or you’re trying to figure out the best copacker to use, I agree I think that just having those other people in your life who know what you’re going through can get you through to the next step. That’s a great point.

Jennifer: So we talked about some of the things to avoid, as well as some of the things to do, is there anything else that you can think of like, “hey this really helps.” It sounds like be clean, be courteous are the two big takeaways, is there anything else that food entrepreneurs need to know? I guess and be prepared, which was the other point you brought up of when you go in to talk to folks, be prepared either with your paperwork or with the questions that you know you need to get answers to.

Rachael: Definitely, I think there are some key offense that really can rub kitchen managers the wrong way and a lot of it is just about inappropriately stretching that relationship, right? It’s very communal, and you might know this person, it might be your aunt, it might be your best friend from the seventh grade who is making quinoa bars now, but really don’t stretch that relationship, this is a working relationship, so if you have a kid policy, a lot of kitchens have an age limit. You can’t bring any kids under 12 or under 16 or none, unless they work for your company. So, don’t let your kids come in and run around the walk-in. Paying late is something that we have tried to alleviate through the Food Corridor through we facilitate invoicing, so all of our invoicing is automated, so we try to help kitchens get their payment on time, so it all goes through our app so it’s all very easy to access.

And then hogging supplies in the kitchen if there are shared supplies, pots and colanders, and again this is not a resource every kitchen offers but at some point there will be a shared resource such as trash bags or paper towels, or countertop cleaner. And just be cognizant that everyone is working as hard as they can to get their food out the door. Make sure you know your boundaries, so read your contract, I would say that’s probably the number one way to keep things in good order is read your contract, confirm what you’re allowed to use in the kitchen and how much of it and when you’re allowed to use it and just make sure that you’re on the up and up. I think probably a good way to just generally do that is check in, check in with your kitchen manager and say, “hey, we’ve been here a couple months, we love the space, how do you think things are going?” Or, “hey we’ve been here a couple months, you know the company before us isn’t pulling their weight, how do we address this?”

Jennifer: Yeah, that is, again, that’s a great point. It’s one of those that seems so simple and so obvious, but yet, having worked in kitchen spaces, you can sometimes let those issues get under your skin and get aggro as opposed to trying to address them. Or, I just also love that idea of just approaching the kitchen manager proactively, and saying, “hey we love it, we’re super happy, what do you think, is there anything else we need to be doing or thinking about?” And that goes back to that earlier point of just building and solidifying that relationship with them.

Rachael: Exactly, yep, it goes a long way.

Jennifer: Well Rachael, I really appreciate this today, again as we talked about in the very beginning, having this kitchen space to work out of is critical for those food entrepreneurs who are not operating under Cottage Food Laws, it is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle, like everything else can kind of get figured out if not immediately, eventually it can get figured out from packaging and production, processes and all of that, but you need to have that kitchen space, like I said, in order to get your licenses so that you can actually begin selling to the public like you want to. So thank you so much, both for taking the time to talk to us, but also for you working with the Food Corridor to create this resource for food entrepreneurs.

Rachael: Absolutely, it’s fun to talk about this. If anyone ever has any questions about shared use kitchens or they’re not quite sure where to go, we are happy to talk to you, so even if it’s just a little Facebook chat, or shoot us an email, and we’re ready to talk.

Jennifer: Well, and again for the folks who are listening, as always in the transcript I will include links to the Food Corridor’s website, and to Facebook so that you will be able to get in touch with them and ask questions and find that kitchen space that you need for your business.

Rachael: Wonderful, and just a last bit of info, we’re working on a shared use kitchen toolkit to increase resources and kind of templating what shared use kitchen managers might need for documents moving forward if they’re just launching or growing, so stay tuned.

Jennifer: Excellent, that sounds like exactly what the industry needs, so I’m very excited to hear that.

Rachael: Great.

Jennifer: Well again, Rachael, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it.

Rachael: Thanks, Jennifer.

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