The concept of "community kitchens" has been around for about 30 years. However, in a more general sense, informal approaches to sharing food processing space have been around much longer than that.
In rural communities throughout Wisconsin, for example, it was often commonplace to utilize church basements to prepare food for large social events or even for retail sale. But as food safety regulations have become more stringent (and as liability concerns have intensified), it became necessary to develop more formal approaches to sharing food processing space.
The basic need for space remains the same, however. People who are just starting out or who only need a commercial kitchen on a seasonal or part-time basis may not want to invest in their own processing facility.
Under the right circumstances, they may prefer instead to share a facility with others. A "community kitchen" (which may also be called a food business incubator or a shared commercial kitchen) is simply a facility where caterers, food cart vendors, farmers and producers of specialty/gourmet food items can prepare their food products in a fully licensed and certified kitchen.
The kitchens, often sponsored by an umbrella nonprofit organization and/or by an existing business incubator, provide start-up businesses with the opportunity to explore food production without the high cost of buying their own equipment or constructing their own building.
Fred Guenterberg, who operates the Watertown Farmers Market Kitchen, said culinary incubators drive new start-up businesses that, without a health department-licensed commercial kitchen, could not legally produce their food. In addition to producing food, commercial kitchens can be used to shoot TV shows, teach cooking classes and host food tastings and other events.
Guenterberg served as chair of the competition at Wisconsin State Fair that featured 22 competitors in the culinary arts category. He interviewed these competitors, who also had an opportunity to offer samples of their goods and promote their businesses.
State Fair promotions
“This category at State Fair is for food items that are not commercially made and mass produced," Guenterberg said. "Showing at the fair and offering samples helps these entrepreneurs let people know about their products and where they can be found.”
Some of the products are sold at farmers market and others are sold online or in major grocery stores.
The Watertown Farmers Market Kitchen has been in business downtown Watertown for just over five years. It is one of about 25 incubator kitchens around the state.
Since it started, the Guenterbergs have helped about a dozen businesses get started. At this time, there are nine people using the kitchen. Some stay well over a year before either moving on to something else or expanding into their own facilities. Others stay just a short time.
More than just a facility
Along with providing all the licensed equipment, Guenterberg also provides a wealth of services to the entrepreneurs.
“We provide training and assistance, supply the basic equipment they need and we give them the counseling and help them work through the licensing process,” he said. “We assist them through the whole process of getting started.”
Tenants can also utilize storage space at the kitchen. Guenterberg said this is helpful for keeping ingredients and supplies there as any opened ingredient packages must be stored on the manufacturing site, according to state regulations.
Those competing at State Fair who make their products in his Watertown facility include Gail Boenning of XSeedingly Satisfying snacks, Amber Yelk of Sassy Sweets and Maya Roberts of Roberts Snacks.
Yelk won three awards with her hand-dipped truffles and other treats. She specializes in the hand-dipped truffles and strawberries, as well as cheesecakes, cupcakes, pies, homemade candy bars and more. She makes large quantities of these items for parties, weddings and other special events.
Roberts, a 17-year-old entrepreneur, is involved in project-based learning at Watertown High School. She did everything involved in starting a business, including writing a business plan, securing funding, contracting with the licensed kitchen and obtaining a license to produce a food product. She had to get the license in her mother’s name since state law requires an entrepreneur to be 18 years old to obtain a food license.
Roberts makes healthy snack products that comply with the school’s food service health requirements. She supplies the school, as well as the Watertown theatre, with her snack products.
As a food manufacturer, she had to study all the licensing steps, including learning recall procedures, product analysis and labeling requirements.
Guenterberg offered advice and assistance as she worked through the process.
“When she ran her first packaging batch, I found one of the packages did not remain sealed. I emailed her and told her she needed to talk with her ‘quality control’ manager about the issue. Of course, she is the ‘quality control’ manager and she immediately solved the problem.”
Packaging and labeling are important parts of producing and selling food in Wisconsin. Ingredients and health information must be printed correctly, and packages need to be appropriate for the product.
The judging at State Fair had a special category just for those things. The judges, Kathy Hetzel, Barb Ingham and Tera Johnson, tasted products in each category, and then they evaluated the packaging of all the products and offered comments to the audience.
First place in that category was Simply Fondant, a small company that produces a unique organic product for use making icings for dessert. The judges liked the packaging because it was simple and conveyed the message of the uniqueness of their product to the special audience they are trying to reach.
Another entry was for Nami Chips, a unique healthy snack made with Japanese ingredients in a kitchen in Viroqua. The product uses organic vegetables from local farmers. The appearance of the fresh vegetables does not matter because they ferment and dehydrate the veggies into a healthy snack with unique flavors. The judges liked the packaging because it used recycled paper and one ink color, communicating to the consumer the naturalness of the product.