Whether sharing a laugh or a several-thousand-dollar piece of equipment, the members of Union Kitchen seem to get along so well that it’s easy to forget that a good number of them are competing with one another for a piece of Washington’s gourmet-food scene pie.
So if you missed the sharing lesson in preschool, Union Kitchen might not be the place for you. But it is an example of an “incubator” — an economic structure that allows small businesses to get started without taking on enormous risks and costs of their own.
The incubator model isn’t new to Washington. Neither is the commercial kitchen. But Union Kitchen co-founders Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist created something unique when they put the two together. Chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen has plans for a similar project at the future Baltimore Food Hub.
Almost 50 small food businesses, ranging from food trucks and caterers to bakers and charcuterie makers (there are a few non-food businesses as well), call Union Kitchen, a commercial kitchen in a converted 7,300-square-foot NoMa warehouse, home. Communal commodities include everything from stainless steel food prep areas and 2,000-foot rolls of plastic wrap to two walk-in refrigerators and neatly stacked piles of cookware.
Union Kitchen has been collecting members at a fairly rapid clip since December, and there’s still room for at least a few more, general manager Mike Darman says. Memberships start at $800 or $1,000 per month, depending on whether they’re paying for all-hours or nights and weekend access. With 24/7 access, members get a dedicated workspace; night and weekend members work wherever there’s room. Each member starts with two shelves of storage space, in refrigerators and freezers or elsewhere. Rent includes building maintenance, utilities and amenities such as linens, WiFi and printing.
“By slicing and dicing and bundling those things, we keep the overhead low” for the individual businesses, Darman explains.
Members pretty much say the same thing: Setting up in Union Kitchen is cheaper than starting a facility from scratch and with the included extras a better bargain than some of their previous rented spaces with limited hours.
Before lunch one recent morning, the kitchen buzzes with activity amid a mouth-watering mix of sights, sounds and smells. Whisked owner Jenna Huntsberger stirs a massive pot of filling for Mexican chocolate cream pies destined for farmers markets and other retail outlets. Bettina Stern of Chaya pulls garlic-laced roasted eggplant out of the oven that will later go into tacos she will sell with business partner Suzanne Simon at the FreshFarm Market by the White House. Andy Peters of Quickstep Catering fills wraps with bright green edamame to sell at a pop-up lunch at technology incubator 1776. Everyone tries to stay out of each other’s way.