Meg Murray of Thunder Pig Confectionery is in dire need of a half-size baking sheet for her focaccia dough. She scurries from the second-floor space occupied by most of the bakers at Union Kitchen to the largest first-floor prep area to beg one off of Whisked baking assistant Kristen Hoffman, who is in the throes of slicing nearly 50 pounds of plums destined for 300 pies.
Hoffman agrees to the loan. Murray does a little happy dance, which Hoffman playfully imitates, adding that Murray could be a ringer for actress and comedian Kristen Wiig.
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.
“You learn to make yourself very small,” Hoffman says.
Cooperation comes as second nature for this group.
“None of us want to see each other fail,” says Meredith Tomason of RareSweets, another bakery. “We’re very supportive even if our business models are similar.”
How warm and fuzzy, kind of like the Capital Kombucha tea fermenting under giant plastic tarps.
Darman says part of the facility’s success depends on “people’s willingness to work with each other.”
It hasn’t been a problem thus far, as illustrated by a recent group effort to haul a new oven in through a second-floor window. Amazingly, there isn’t even a scheduling system in place.
“They all operate at different times naturally,” Darman says. Bakers, food truck operators and lunchtime caterers tend to show up early. Other businesses less locked into a daily cycle — the chocolatier, charcutier, ice cream makers — show up as their schedules dictate.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it for myself,” admits Alex Scarcella as he shreds 50 pounds of cabbage for cole slaw.
Scarcella knows a thing or two about scheduling. When he’s not working with business partner Tito Holloway on their South Carolina-influenced catering business, Altis BBQ, he’s a pilot for JetBlue.
But don’t mistake the lack of regimented hours for disorganization. Darman, Singer and Gilchrist work to stay on top of the mundane yet critical matters so that their members can concentrate on the food and growing their businesses.
The producers praise the trio for helping them through permit processes. The men, along with Union Kitchen Catering director Gauri Sarin, are also working to promote the Union Kitchen brand and its individual members via events at its parking lot at Third and L Streets NE, appropriately named the Lot, which will host a concert series Saturday evenings in the fall.
All that “added value” is what Singer says sets Union Kitchen apart from other communal commercial kitchens.
It’s an enthusiastically embraced business model for something that neither Gilchrist nor Singer envisioned when they started looking for space that would allow Gilchrist’s sister, Greer, to expand the baking she’d been doing at the duo’s Blind Dog Cafe in Darnell’s Bar near Howard University.
“Most of it has happened by happenstance,” Singer says. “We didn’t have a plan.”
Originally, they intended to only rent the upstairs area where the bakers now work. Instead, “we sort of just anted up” and leased the whole building, he says.
Potential members are carefully vetted, according to Singer. The process usually starts with an e-mail or application from a producer. Next is a phone conversation with Darman, and then, if things sound good, a face-to-face meeting.
Louis Kim and John Kim (no relation) have reached the meeting phase. They’re interested in opening a coffee shop in the city and need a space to test food recipes. The two gather with Singer and Darman in the kitchen’s front office, where a chalkboard calendar covers the doors to the utility closet and member deliveries — table saw for Milk Cult! — pile up throughout the day.
Singer asks the men about their business plans and experience. He emphasizes the collaborative nature of Union Kitchen and how the coffee venture might benefit from working with other food entrepreneurs.
“Blind Dog is doing better because of the kitchen,” Singer says of the cafe. It uses food from Union Kitchen members, including the bread for which Thunder Pig’s Murray showed up at 5:30 a.m. to start baking.
Speak to enough of the members and it all starts to feel very Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon — or lamb bacon, in the case of Border Springs Farm, which uses Altis BBQ’s smoker for some of its meat. Murray’s focaccia accompanies the vegetarian chili made by Motisola owner Joyce C. Williams for sale at the NoMa Business Improvement District concert in the Lot. RareSweets’s Tomason makes rice pudding for fellow member TaKorean. New arrival Stephen Norberg, who will soon bottle root beer under the brand name Thunder Beast, hopes to collaborate on root beer floats with ice cream maker Victoria Lai of Ice Cream Jubilee. Peters of Quickstep Catering wants to outsource desserts to bakeries such as Whisked. And on it goes.
A lot of cheerleading happens, too. Curbside Cupcakes head baker Alexandra Cheppa tells a visitor to keep Ismael Neggaz’s card, because she sees big things for his new chocolate business, Chocotenango.
Neggaz, an Algerian-born line cook at Bourbon Steak by day, gives a bashful smile.
“They feel like family, to be honest,” Neggaz says of his fellow members.
“It was hard mentally to make the transition” to a shared space after working at her house eight blocks away, Williams says, stirring a vat of chili. “But since I’ve been here, it’s felt like home.”