Where food entrepreneurs cook up companies

Launching a new business is challenging. Launching a food-related business can be especially difficult.
First, there are all the costs associated with any manufacturing venture: sourcing and storing supplies, purchasing equipment, courting customers, establishing delivery and billing procedures. And then, because the end product is edible, there’s a maze of state licensing rules to navigate, with resulting fees and inspections from various government agencies. The process can take months and cost thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of dollars.

So how is it that, at any farmers market in metro Atlanta, there’s never a shortage of eager vendors of baked goods, and jams, and frozen treats? How do they do it?

No doubt some are flying (or baking) under the radar by operating out of their home kitchens. But many others have discovered a legitimate and cost-effective compromise for breaking into the food industry: the community commercial kitchen.

Community commercial kitchens, also called shared-use or shared-time kitchens, rent out a licensed, commercial kitchen to multiple users. In Georgia, individual users must still obtain their own licenses and inspections to sell the foods they create. But community kitchens ease the pain by providing dry storage and refrigerator/freezer space, access to big-ticket equipment and, often, guidance through the certification process, all for a reasonable cost.

Shared commercial kitchens are the business incubators of the food world. They help birth the next generation of bakeries, creameries, caterers, and food manufacturers … the industry’s buns in the oven, so to speak.

“If I hadn’t found a kitchen that allowed me to pay an hourly rate and book time when I needed it, I don’t know how I would have started my business,” says Sarah O’Brien (in photo), who, after six months of operating her Little Tart Bakeshop at the Community Kitchens at Irwin Street Market in Inman Park, hopes to soon sign a lease on her own bakery space.

For O’Brien, starting small was the way to go. She’s been testing the waters at farmers markets; regular shoppers at the Emory and Decatur farmers markets are already fans of her rustic French-style pastries like vanilla bean shortbread, strawberry galette and crème fraiche quiche. When she opens her own store this spring, some of those fans are sure to seek her out for a wider selection of handmade treats.
That’s another selling point for community commercial kitchens, says Shared Kitchens LLC owner Julie Farr: They give startups a chance to build a customer base. “Because they are able to establish their brand, and establish their market; because they already have a revenue stream in place, when they do move out on their own they’re going to be stronger,” she says.

Farr launched her first shared-use kitchen in Suwanee two years ago, after a more or less casual inquiry into renting commercial kitchen space turned into a personal mission. “By the time we found out it would be a regulatory nightmare, it had become a crusade for me,” she explains. The space features commercial-quality appliances, walk-in cooler and freezer space, dry storage space, and an orderly reservation process for kitchen time. It was an instant hit, so Farr opened a second Shared Kitchen, in Decatur, this past fall. Her clients include caterers, bakers and specialty food wholesalers.

Ava Artis and John Baiyewu enjoy the actual sense of community at their community kitchen, at the Entrepreneurium on Moreland Avenue. “There’s a lot of support and collaboration” among entrepreneurs, says Baiyewu, who launched the PopShop with Artis last spring and began selling original ice pops at the East Lake Farmers Market last summer. “One person just doesn’t know everything,” he says. “It’s cool to find out, say, where to get organic sugar” from another kitchen sharer.

The PopShop team, who create frozen flavors like cucumber lime cilantro, muscadine cardamom and strawberry basil, rent a suite that includes office use so they can conduct all their business—not just the cooking part—from one place. They take orders online and plan to sell at more farmers markets and special events come spring. Down the road, who knows? They may even open a brick-and-mortar PopShop.

What if there had been no Entrepreneurium? “Our spirit is such that we would have found a way,” Baiyewu says. “But it’s perfect for us for where we are right now.”