Back in March, Spike Mendelsohn, the former “Top Chef” competitor behind Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza, handed over his tomato sauce recipe to D.C. Central Kitchen. His goal? For the nonprofit organization to practice and perfect the sauce and then to produce the 18 gallons a day that the Capitol Hill pizzeria needs to satisfy its customers.
The arrangement might sound unusual, but with any luck it won’t be the only deal that the ever-evolving D.C. Central Kitchen strikes with star chefs.
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.
“We have to save money, and the farmers have to make something,” said Curtin. “So we worked out a deal where we’re getting better food at less money than if we were using a wholesaler.” Last year Fresh Start processed, vacuum-sealed and froze about 69,000 pounds of local produce in season at a savings of $51,000, according to Curtin.
The local procurement helped Fresh Start win a bid to make three meals a day for seven schools in a pilot project launched by the D.C. Public Schools last August.
“We instituted a policy where 20 percent of the food served has to be sourced locally,” explained Jeff Mills, the school system’s director of nutrition and food services. “D.C. Central Kitchen came in with relationships with local farmers already in place. So we immediately had things like smaller apples for elementary school kids. That’s a big deal, because when a second-grader gets a huge apple for breakfast in the classroom, it’s hard to really get into it and eat much of it.” Mills said the contract will be extended for the coming school year.
Fresh Start last year also won a contract to supply a cafe at the University of the District of Columbia and became an authorized catering vendor for special functions at Arena Stage.
Fresh Start revenues have thus jumped from $1.5 million five years ago to a projected $3.7 million for 2011. In the past year alone, the social enterprise expanded its payroll by 43 people, 30 of whom are graduates of the kitchen’s job training program.
But the increased production was unsustainable in the 225-square-foot work space that Fresh Start uses inside D.C. Central Kitchen headquarters near Union Station. And there is no room to expand in the city-owned building.
Last fall, Curtin and his colleagues found space to rehab in the Langdon Park neighborhood. The $600,000 in start-up costs are being underwritten by grants from the Boeing Co., the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Philip L. Graham Fund, Kaiser Permanente, Bank of America and others.
“The goal now is to make sure we’re running all the Fresh Start operations as efficiently, as effectively and as profitably as we can,” Curtin said.
The 6,000-square-foot space will be used primarily for production, though it will help Fresh Start serve its customers in different ways. “One thing this is not intended to be is the thing that makes us the largest school-food provider in D.C.,” Curtin said. Fresh Start will continue to make school meals in District-owned buildings. In the new space, “what we would be interested in is processing salsa for the chicken quesadillas we serve at school lunch, or making all the tomato sauce used in schools.”
And then there is the potential to work with the Spike Mendelsohns of the region.
We, the Pizza buys canned tomatoes from California most of the year for its pizza sauce. But from spring through summer, a hydroponic crop arrives weekly from Hummingbird Farms in Ridgely, Md. Mendelsohn wants to use more local tomatoes, with D.C. Central Kitchen buying more of the local crop at its peak, making the sauce and then storing it for use year-round.
“The relationship just made so much sense to me, I hardly had to think about it,” Mendelsohn said. “They get a better price, I get a better price, everybody’s happy, people are working, and the product is local.”
Tomato sauce is a test-drive, Mendelsohn added. When Good Stuff Eatery expands to Crystal City and Georgetown next year, the business wants Fresh Start to process many more items: potatoes for french fries, burger toppings, sauces for chicken wings and salad dressings.
Curtin said the partnership has the potential to create sustained community impact.
“At a time when most places in the economy are contracting, we’re creating a lot of jobs and revenue,” he said. “That’s a really powerful thing, to be creating jobs for men and women who have difficulty supporting their families.”
Hinman is a Washington journalist.