Driven in part by the food truck boom, central and shared kitchens continue to grow in popularity. Here the owner of a Chicago area shared kitchen shares with us the key foodservice equipment and design implications for this type of foodservice operation.
There's a new foodservice sandbox to play in: commissary and rental kitchens are heating up — literally. Fueling the fire are food product startups, burgeoning bakeries, food trucks and other small businesses that have ignited the food scene in recent years. As a result, longtime owners of rental kitchens are realizing an increase in the demand for their spaces, while newcomers to the segment are taking advantage of new work to be had.
Kelly Ford, owner of United Kitchen (formerly From Scratch Marketplace), knows this to be true. "I was in the bakery business and noticed a demand for leasing kitchens at off hours," she says. "It seems that small businesses have really picked up but the startup investment can be huge for them, especially if they want to build their own kitchen, which can be astronomical in costs. Many choose, instead, to get started in a rental space like ours, and test out their products. I have really seen the rental kitchen business take off."
While some commissary/rental kitchen owners bring their own food industry backgrounds to the business, it's not unlikely that others will begin to partner more exclusively with dealers and designers as this segment grows. Ford worked closely with Woodridge, Ill.-based Edward Don & Co. to expand and continue supplying her three-year-old shared kitchen space business in LaGrange, Ill., which she remodeled and rebranded last year. Ford gave FE&S the rundown of what types of special needs rental kitchens have. Here's a look at the primary foodservice equipment and supplies considerations when designing commissary or such spaces, according to Ford.
A former baker, Ford knows all too well the importance of having durable, reliable cooking equipment, primarily different types of ovens. Ford's clients, which include bakers, private chefs, chocolatiers, food product developers, restaurant owners in training, and the occasional food truck operator, also require basic ranges and ample work space.
When she first founded the kitchen in 2011 Ford started with a single oven, no range, and several induction burners — enough to accommodate only one client at a time. Since then she has added a full cooking suite, including a six-burner range, double convection ovens and more workstations. Smallwares and supplies are added on an as-needed basis, mostly driven by client demands.
While some rental kitchens span many square feet, Ford's is on the smaller side at just 1,750. As a result, Ford is unable to expand outward but has learned that by scheduling client use appropriately, she can make the most out of the space and even have up to three groups work simultaneously.
"We are available for use 24 hours so we operate on a strict schedule," Ford says. "Scheduling is so important so you can have multiple people working without delaying their efforts because they are waiting to use the oven."
Designing for flow and avoiding bottlenecks and high traffic areas represents another key factor in shared kitchen space design. "You need a direct path to the oven to prevent people from running into each other," Ford says. A wide, open format helps with that.
United Kitchen differs from many shared kitchen spaces in that it also houses a retail section that clients can use to showcase and sell their goods to the public. The retail element is also vital for chefs and business owners because it allows them to gain insight about the best way to market their products.
The store has a small staff provided by United Kitchen and is available for clients with regular kitchen lease agreements. United Kitchen also takes a small commission from the retail sales. "The vendors don't have to be in the store to sell their product — they simply get weekly checks," Ford says, noting that this has been a huge draw for new clients and a way to tackle competition in the commissary arena. The clients love it too — area customers get a chance to try out new products but also feel good about supporting local businesses.
Access to the retail space is an added value for leasing clients, and a way for Ford to entice those that only buy space a la carte to up their commitment.
To overhaul the space and attract new customers, adding better equipment and supplies was key but so were the cosmetic improvements, developed by an interior designer, as well as the marketing and branding efforts.
"We hired a marketing agency to help us design a beautiful new website, color palate and logo to help us tie the brand together so customers know what's going on in the facility," Ford says. "We're kind of different — being a shared kitchen versus a traditional restaurant — so communicating what we do has always been a challenge. People would walk in and not necessarily understand what was going on in the space. Once they see how we're supporting small, local businesses, they're all for it."
In some cases, rental kitchens face more health department inspections and scrutiny than even traditional restaurants, given that they work with multiple customers. On top of that, each individual United Kitchen client must be an established corporation, have business insurance and an up to date food sanitation certificate to be able to lease the space.
Another way to notice the demand for more rental or shared kitchen spaces is evident by the fact that the local government in Illinois has been writing additional rules and regulations for dealing with these types of non traditional food businesses. "While the state welcomes us, I do think it adds a wrench to the mix because they have to deal with more of these types of spaces and set the standards," Ford says. "In fact, the health department has been out to our facility several times in the past year so I venture to guess we're inspected more than others."
"I absolutely see rental kitchens continuing to be more popular," Ford says. In the meantime, she'll continue partnering with her supplier to meet her clients' needs and open the lines of communication — both for this type of collaboration as well as for marketing both her and her clients' individual businesses.
Ford says its important to get regular feedback from her clients — this is in essence the underlying value-add of a rental or shared kitchen space. Not only do they provide the space, tools and equipment for aspiring food makers to develop and test their products, they are the ones assisting in the long-term challenge of growing sales as well as building brands and loyal customers. Supporting rental kitchens, in essence, supports other businesses — and potential design clients — who will one day open their own restaurants and kitchens and need additional help down the line. Talk about building loyal customers.