How D.C.’s food entrepreneurs are cutting costs


Emily Robins of Goldilocks Goodies sells her cookies and quiches at the farmer's market on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Washington’s expanding food culture has inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs to try their hand at the food business, often peddling treats they make themselves through food trucks, farmers markets, coffee shops and restaurants.

One barrier to entry, at least in the District, can be finding a kitchen in which to cook. Currently, city law requires bakers and cooks to prepare food in commercial kitchens, with rates, often driven up by District real estate prices, that can be unaffordable to entrepreneurs just starting out.

A District Council bill introduced last month would allow bakers and cooks taking in less than $25,000 a year to produce from their homes and sell to the public, but it’s early in the legislative process. Many states — including Maryland and Virginia — already permit such operations, under what are known as “cottage food laws.”

Until such a law is passed, those hoping to keep their businesses in the District have had to get creative in cutting costs and leveraging whatever resources they find — and their approaches vary just as much as their products.

Here’s how three local entrepreneurs are getting their food businesses off the ground.

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Kristina Kern sells flavored popcorn from her bright yellow food truck, Stella’s PopKern, around the District each week, dispensing a variety of homemade concoctions, such as puffs imbued with white cheddar and Old Bay seasoning.

Kern didn’t set out to operate a food truck.

The Northwest resident originally wanted to open a brick-and-mortar shop. About two years ago, she realized she wasn’t happy answering to others at her high-end catering job. She decided to take the next step when a close friend’s sudden death reminded her that, regardless of the slow economic recovery, “there’s no time like the present,” Kern said.

But retail space was too expensive, and she had trouble qualifying for a Small Business Administration loan. “The only thing I had as collateral up against the loan was my home, which was too risky for me,” she said.

So she opted to use her savings to buy a food truck, which, including popcorn equipment, cost her upwards of $30,000. She rents a commercial kitchen in Petworth for popcorn preparation, paying more than a $1,000 a month to Food Chain, the D.C. business operating the kitchen where she also stores the truck overnight. During the day, when she’s out selling, she pays for parking through an app on her smartphone, tweeting her location through her @stellaspopkern handle.

She started the business — named for her 10-year-old daughter Stella — in October 2012, Every morning before the truck hits the streets at around 11 a.m., Kern and a co-worker spend several hours in the kitchen, making batches of her popular white cheddar and salted caramel flavors. She also prepares spice infusions for the other flavors, including blood orange, basil lemongrass with Thai ginger sea salt, and spicy curry with garlic sea salt, which she adds to plain popcorn and tosses in the truck as people order them.

About a month ago, Kern discovered a new popcorn coater which could produce 10 more servings of popcorn per half hour in her special cheese fondue than her old coater. It cost her $1,000 — about nine times as much as her old one — but it saves her at least an hour every morning, freeing her up to develop additional revenue streams such as catering.

She was initially reluctant to use the machine. “Being a small-business owner, there's a fine line — you don’t want to mechanize the process too much because you’re known as an artisan in your product. You want people to think you are doing everything in small batches, but I finally got to a point where I’m not able to take the cheese fondue we’re creating and coat it well enough on our popcorn,” she said.

Kern has been surprised to find that customer preferences vary at each location, even if the distance between them is just a few blocks.

Patrons at Farragut North, for instance, prefer the spice-infused flavors, because “they’re more foodies,” she said. Metro Center customers like the chocolate flavors, and Union Station customers seem to enjoy the salted caramel.

**

Northwest resident Emily Robins has a longer morning commute than most as she builds her gluten-free baking business, Goldilocks Goodies.

Twice a week for the past year, the Northwest Washington resident has made a two-hour trek to her hometown, Lancaster, Pa., in her Toyota Prius. She loves having the driving time to herself — she listens to music and mentally runs through her to-do list. When she arrives, she gets to work, baking in the kitchen where she grew up, sometimes with her mother’s help.

Robins is avoiding what she considers exorbitant rental fees for commercial kitchen space in the District — several hundred dollars a month. She uses her parents’ kitchen rent-free (she obtained a license for the kitchen in Pennsylvania), and transports the baked goods back to D.C., where she delivers individual orders and vends at farmers markets, cafes, co-ops and the like. She sells banana bread cookies with walnuts, almond and crystallized ginger biscotti, and strawberry rhubarb loaves, among other items.

Driving to Lancaster wasn’t her first choice — before she settled on going home, Robins was looking for restaurants in D.C. which might let her use their kitchens on an hourly basis during off-times. Most charged about $40 an hour, she said — roughly the same amount she’d pay in gas to drive home to Lancaster.

Even if she did find an adequate kitchen, she’d have to sanitize it heavily to prevent gluten contamination, and would have to adapt to the restaurant’s hours and rules.

“I wanted to do it legitimately, and it seemed like wherever I turned wasn’t an option,” Robins said. The best location she could find was in Rockville, about an hour away from her District apartment. “I figured for about an hour more I could go back to my hometown.”

Robins found that going home to Lancaster helped her business — she gets ingredients from local farms, and sometimes distributes her goods at shops there, developing a following both in Lancaster and the District. Her parents’ home is built on land bought from her great-grandfather’s farm, and one day, she hopes to buy it back using money from her business.

But she said if she could afford it, she’d like to have a back-up kitchen in Washington, so she could bake in between visits to Lancaster, especially if a last-minute order comes up.

“If it’s a weekend and I run out at a farmers market, I could bake overnight — it might be an option if I had a kitchen in the city.”

**

Meg Murray left her job as a Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist about a year ago to turn her passion for baking into a business. After graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Gaithersburg, Murray has been leveraging the region’s network of food entrepreneurs and enthusiasts to help her nascent confection business, Thunder Pig Confectionery, gain traction.

One Monday evening this spring, Murray nervously watched as a small crowd of foodies filed into Hello Cupcake, a bakery on Barracks Row in Southeast Washington. She was introducing some new concepts — Szechuan butter pecan toffee and chocolate cashew bark, among other items — and testing out a few different consistencies for her signature marshmallows (the green tea marshmallow was the firmest, raspberry was the middle and chocolate was the softest). She called the event “Thunder Pig’s Flying Circus”, arranging the samples like circus rings — marshmallows in one, biscotti in another, and candies in the last.

Hello Cupcake isn’t Murray’s business; through an agreement with the shop’s owner, Murray has been operating a “pop-up” out of the store every week. Patrons buy tickets for $18 or $25 — the latter includes cocktails paired with the sweets — sample all her treats, and fill out feedback forms.

“Was the consistency of the caramels too tacky, too hard or just right?” Murray asks patrons on the feedback form, for instance. “Rate the quality of the marshmallows (1 being the worst, 5 being best quality).”

George Washington University undergraduate Eliza Hecht attended one such pop-up event, and was sampling Murray’s gluten-free items. “The raspberry squares are way better than you’d ever expect for a raspberry bar,” she said, but noted, “the marshmallows could be more saturated in color, and that might make them more appealing.”

While Murray said she appreciated the opportunity to “hone in on [Hello Cupcake’s] customer base” to raise awareness about her brand, she was particularly eager to collect feedback about her products. Based on the few forms she’d read, and the murmurs she overheard at the events, “maybe the middle of the road is the way to go” for marshmallow firmness, she said.

The connections helping Murray crowd-source her business didn’t fall into place naturally — in the past few months, she’s had to actively seek them out.

Last month, she competed in and won a bake-off event organized by StartUp Kitchen, a D.C. start-up incubator, whose prize included mentorship with Hello Cupcake owner Penny Karas and the opportunity to run a pop-up out of the store. Murray is also a member of Union Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen space and business incubator in Northeast Washington, where she prepares her treats.

The kitchen is more than just a work-space for Murray, who pays several hundred dollars a month for membership and works there a few times a week during the day. It’s also a place where she turns casual conversations with fellow food entrepreneurs in the kitchen into business opportunities.

Murray is currently working on a collaborative pop-up concept with a French pastry-chef who she met at Union Kitchen, and Jonas Singer, who owns and operates the space, introduced Murray to Washington’s Green Grocer who now purchases her products wholesale.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. She joined the Washington Post after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and has interned for Business Insider and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a native of Pittsburgh.
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