Called “a great partner” by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the 22-year-old anti-hunger organization has been hailed nationally for its innovative and multi-pronged approach to social enterprise. Every day, the agency cranks out 4,800 meals, mostly with donated food, and delivers them to area homeless shelters and social service agencies, all while training ex-offenders and former drug addicts to become cooks. Over the past decade, it has also built a profitable side business called Fresh Start Catering. In the past two years, while job prospects in many American communities have withered, Fresh Start has been adding employees to serve a growing commercial demand for locally sourced cuisine.
Now, D.C. Central Kitchen is betting on continued growth by expanding its footprint for the first time in two decades. Last week it opened a sprawling new commercial kitchen on Evarts Street in Northeast Washington, where Fresh Start expects to double its processing of local produce and expand revenues by 70 percent over the next three years.
Showing off the place last month, just as renovations were nearing their end, chief executive Michael F. Curtin Jr. said he was simultaneously anxious about the financial responsibility and excited about the organization’s imminent collaboration with a food professional such as Mendelsohn.
Mostly, Curtin was impatient over the usual construction and permit delays. “We’ve been talking about this for so long, Mendelsohn and his team keep saying, ‘Yes, we’re in!’ and I’m frustrated because I haven’t been able to produce it yet,” Curtin said.
The catering operation got started 13 years ago, when founder Robert Egger realized he could put more of the agency’s culinary-job-training graduates to work in-house while generating revenues for the organization and lessening its reliance on grants and donations. Business was steady, but proceeds were dragged down by the price of fresh fruits and vegetables, most of which the agency had to buy rather than receive through donations.
So in 2008, Curtin approached his board of directors with a plan to build a food hub that would source regional produce and eventually process much of it for a variety of clients, from schools to groceries. With trucks and warehouse space already at its disposal, D.C. Central Kitchen was well positioned to begin hauling fresh food from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia farms within 200 miles of the District. Because the agency was buying so-called “seconds,” less-than-perfect specimens, the arrangement seemed to work for the nonprofit group and its new farmer-suppliers.