Clad in chef whites, Adam Strum gathers up produce and containers. He’s spent the better part of the day turning fresh, locally farmed ingredients into a paleo chili. Before he heads out, he’ll mop and sanitize the floors, clean the sinks and remove all the traces of his afternoon’s work.
Strum is one of a growing number of culinary entrepreneurs who hone their craft, test new recipes and build their followings using commercial prep kitchens.
As the culinary arts expand beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant to food trucks, fresh markets, and pop-up shops, chefs need a licensed and fully equipped place to cook. But it’s not just food that’s cooking in these shared-use kitchens – they are an incubator for ideas and a community for cooks.
Cooking is serious business
Naked Kitchen at 1286 Pendleton Ave. in Greenville, run by Ed Creighton and his wife Julie Jenkins, and the Old Mill Cafe and Catering at 518 Conestee Ave., in Mauldin, owned by Vaughn Ownbey, are two shared-use facilities in the Upstate.
To sell wholesale to supermarkets or other distributors, products must be prepared in a commercial-grade kitchen that is licensed and regularly inspected by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The kitchens are equipped with restaurant-grade appliances, high-end air handling and cleaning systems, stainless steel prep surfaces and some storage for individual clients. If a client needs a specialty appliance, they’re expected to bring it with them each time they cook.
The image of home cooks whipping up cupcakes, painstakingly wrapping them up in colorful boxes and carrying them to local markets is not what these prep kitchens are about. Here, cooking is serious business, and both Ownbey and Creighton want serious cooks.
“We provide a place where creators who may not have the budget for a brick-and-mortar space can test the waters,” says Creighton, who originally built the kitchen as a place to make his Naked Pasta, which is still prepared there. He’s particularly proud of his role in helping culinary entrepreneurs get started. “Folks have come in here, poured their hearts into it and had a good business plan, moved forward and opened up their own place.”
He points to the food truck Automatic Taco as a success story. “They grew to a place where they needed their own kitchen all the time,” he says.
“An umbrella of knowledge”
At the Old Mill Cafe and Catering, Ownbey recently closed the public restaurant to expand the commercial prep capabilities. Having a shared-use facility was always part of his business plan. Currently he can handle eight companies, but the expansion will boost that to 16. “The businessperson in me loves to work with these folks. Some are in their infancy, some are serious entrepreneurs. Those are the ones I want to attract,” he says. “I see our role in this in not only providing a facility, but more of an umbrella of knowledge that can be shared.”
Ownbey enjoys the mentorship aspects of his “commune of cooking.” Although he has occasionally turned people down who want to rent time, it is usually because “they’re just not ready to cook yet.”
“I talk to people all the time who have ideas. The first question they ask is always what it costs. But I say, ‘You have bigger questions to ask before we get to that.’ There’s an evolution to this, and a lot of people need more development of their plans and ideas before they’re actually ready to cook.”
A costly learning curve
Marty Redden makes his Marty-Q barbecue sauce in Ownbey’s facility. He started out, like so many, cooking for friends at home. But he’s learned that there is a long – and costly – “learning curve to dealing with the public and food products.” He blew through $1,300 on bad labels and overpriced lab work in the beginning and appreciates the environment at Old Mill where individuals can share ideas and experiences and possibly avoid making the same costly mistakes.
South Carolina, Creighton says, has some of the strictest food laws in the country. That can make the food business difficult to navigate, even for those who have run businesses elsewhere in the country. “It’s a daunting task to get started in South Carolina,” he says.
Chef Adam is no stranger to the demands and requirements of commercial food preparation. Before starting Adam’s Mobile Market, he was general manager of the New York Butcher Shoppe and executive chef at The Cliffs at Keowee Falls. With the cost of outfitting a kitchen over $100,000, Adam’s dream business “would not have been feasible without a commercial kitchen. It’s been an awesome opportunity for me.”