Never Too Many Cooks in This Kitchen

When Lisa Sutton first approached Amesbury’s health and building inspectors with her proposal for establishing a shared-use commercial kitchen in one of the city’s first and most successfully renovated former mill buildings, both men had the same initial reaction: “Never heard of such a thing.” To be clear, neither official was being obstructionist or dismissive. Rather it was the concept – that one commercial-grade kitchen might be shared by several cooks, all trying to launch some kind of food-based business – that stumped them.

The shared-use commercial kitchen, often known as a kitchen incubator because it gives a fledgling food entrepreneur a place to begin and grow her venture, is not a new entity, but it is new-ish. I wasn’t able to find exact numbers of these kitchens across the country, but it is estimated that 50 to 100 spots exist from California to North Carolina, Minnesota to Texas, and all points in between. And with the number of people losing jobs in recent poor economies, or changing careers mid-life to follow a long-held dream, the number of kitchens is steadily growing. Here’s why: Such a space, outfitted as it is with large pieces of professional equipment, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, and – best of all – proper zoning and permitting, offers a place where luck might be turned around and dreams might come true, all for a space rental fee instead of the large expense associated with owning and stocking one’s own kitchen.

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Lisa didn’t set out to be the shared use kitchen trailblazer that she is, however. At the start she was simply a woman looking for a new career. She had spent years working for a developmental disability agency doing community outreach and then fundraising, work she enjoyed, while married and raising three children. And then she divorced, her children grew older. As her personal landscape changed, she found herself wondering what it might be like to strive for a well-blended life, one where her work meshed with and reflected her passions, values, and goals. Lisa comes from a family of cooks – her parents once owned a local restaurant, her brother is at present a caterer in Austin, Texas, and she herself she waitressed and cooked at various times – and the impulse to feed people in some way pulled her. The more she considered the step, the more, she says, she was “filled with a flood of relief” by allowing herself to go in that direction. Working around food felt right.

At first Lisa thought she would produce her own line of artisan quiches, and hired a micro business strategist to help her with a business plan. As they discussed how to produce these quiches, her Plan A, the idea of a shared use commercial kitchen came up. To launch, Lisa needed the economy of sharing space part time instead of making the huge investment in her own single-use space. Plan B was to find such a place. Her brother worked out of one down in Texas; she knew they existed. But not near her, she learned. As she looked for space and found none close enough to home, she realized this was a void ready and waiting to be filled. There had to be many others like her, she thought, people trying to get a food-based business off the ground, people working on a small scale out of a home kitchen and looking to expand. Lisa sat with this idea for a while, and the longer she did, the more she questioned which goal, A or B, was her real purpose.

“You know,” chimed in her business strategist, “Plan B can become Plan A.”

Of course it could. And so it did, and Amesbury’s Kitchen Local was born. Lisa has never looked back.

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She researched the practices of as many shared use kitchens as she could, and noted the best practices of each in order to construct her own list of policies for kitchen use. She identified space in Barbara Lorenc’s renovated mill building at 14 Cedar Street. She got Amesbury’s mayor, city council, building inspector and health agent on board with her commitment, filling out hundreds of pages of applications and passing all the necessary food service certifications in the process, persisting even when doubters assured her she would for certain be sued.

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“It was all new to me. I had to absorb everything like a sponge. And I loved it.

After a summer of research, the application process began in earnest in August; the kitchen was permitted this past January. On Thursday, March 28, Lisa hosted a Grand Opening Celebration open house for 170 people from the community and beyond, people curious about the facility and people curious about how they themselves might use the facility. With the opening, Lisa has become equal parts facilitator, role model, and mentor for others who, like her, have a dream to work for themselves and feed others. Artisan quiches are no longer on the horizon and for now she couldn’t be happier.

Lisa welcomes all comers to Kitchen Local, whether visitor or potential client, as if it is her home kitchen, with a warm smile and all the grace and generosity of spirit of the best host. But the work within the kitchen itself is all business. The requirements to use the space are rigorous but fair, and Lisa will coach along the way.  Her openness and warmth suggest that she represents to her clients both nurturing big sister and wise businesswoman, ready to help them get set for entrepreneurial success. After all, the potential rewards for everyone concerned are great: as Kitchen Local thrives, individual businesses grow – perhaps employ area residents, perhaps become brick-and-mortar entities – and the community as a result strengthens.

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“This venture is where I was meant to be,” Lisa concludes. “It feeds my needs to work in and support my community. I am both energized and at ease running this kitchen.

“But I am amazed too. I knew I would love doing this work, I knew it would be good for me to do what my heart was telling me to do. What I didn’t know was how excited so many other people would be, too. From the tradespeople who had the early stages of the building project, to the community leaders, to the people I don’t yet know who are planning on coming to the open house – everyone is excited about us. In a crazy and busy world, with more and more technology, I have learned that many of us have been craving more local community. I think Kitchen Local feeds that.

“And that feels good.”

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Lisa Sutton (third from left) with her daughter (second from left) and Open House helpers

Lisa Sutton (third from left) with her daughter (second from left) and Open House helpers

For information about Kitchen Local, contact Lisa Sutton at:

14 Cedar Street

Amesbury, MA  01913

978-204-3197

lisa@kitchenlocal.com

©2013  Jane A. Ward

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