Kitchen for Rent

ver wonder what happens to the leftover apples and squash that don’t go home in your farmers’ market tote? Ellen Barnard did, and she didn’t like some of what she found out.

“If they can’t sell it, they compost it,” she says.

As co-chair of the Northside Planning Council, Barnard has been engaging organizers, farmers and other food producers at her neighborhood’s Sunday market in eye-opening conversations about how much more of their products they could offer if gaps in the local food chain were identified and filled.

Gaps like this: Farmers with excess produce don’t want to see it go to waste, but they don’t have the time or interest to can and preserve it themselves. Bakers package and sell their cookies but can’t afford to install more equipment to grow their inventory. A meat producer works out of a church basement but is rapidly outgrowing the kitchen’s ability to support the demand.

So Barnard got to thinking. If marketing firms and biotech companies have startup facilities to incubate their businesses, why can’t food entrepreneurs?

Before long, Barnard got wind of similar conversations on the topic and began pulling together a team to explore a business plan for a certified commercial kitchen space for rent by the hour. It’s a shared-use model where individuals, community groups and culinary instructors could take advantage of the offerings, which would ideally include “business counseling and services like a traditional business incubator,” says Barnard. Located near a food pantry, hunger programs could get a boost as well.

If the dream is big, the cost is commensurate, though Barnard says early signs of support put them within reach of their $400,000 fundraising goal before they break ground—if all goes well—in the fall of next year.

“Successful kitchens around the country don’t have that huge debt load to pay off when they open,” she says. To that end, Commonwealth Development, in partnership with UW–Extension and Thrive, were awarded a Department of Commerce feasibility grant to study like-minded food ventures.

“We will look at other projects in Madison and the surrounding area … so that folks aren’t stepping on toes or competing in ways they don’t need to be,” says Anne Pfeiffer of the UW Extension’s Agricultural Innovation Center. “We will also look at projects around the country to gather best practices.”

And the city of Madison, which has job creation weighing heavily on its mind in the current economic climate, has expressed an interested in investing in this type of project. Once the facility opens, user and class fees would pay for ongoing expenses to run the business.

North-side residents have been growing and selling their own food at Troy Gardens for decades. Barnard says that proven track record of success positions the culturally diverse community for the next logical link in the food chain.

“There’s a bunch of us working on food security and production, and making local food fabulous on the north side,” she says. “The synergy is happening now.”

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.