The shared kitchen model, emerging and evolving

Shared kitchens and kitchen incubators play a unique and vital role in food and entrepreneurial ecosystems across the country. Shared kitchens are licensed commercial spaces that provide a pathway for food entrepreneurs—ranging from chefs, caterers, food truck operators, and bakers, to value-added producers and packaged food and beverage makers—to launch and grow their businesses. By renting space in a shared kitchen on an hourly, daily or monthly basis, businesses can produce food in compliance with regulatory requirements without needing to invest in their own facility during a stage when capital and cash flow are a challenge. Kitchen incubators provide similar access to production space while also delivering education and ecosystem services that support business success and propel growth.  

Below is content reposted from the Shared Kitchen Toolkit we developed with Fruition Planning and Management in partnership with Purdue University Extension, Local Food Program. We will continue to post additional content from the Toolkit on our blog throughout 2019.

By providing entrepreneurs, producers, and food access programs with affordable space, shared kitchens can help strengthen local food systems and build community prosperity. Because of this, shared kitchens are being embraced as tools to achieve a wide variety of community impact goals, from job creation to workforce training, healthy food access to nutrition education, farm viability to localizing the food economy, and neighborhood revitalization to tourism. Additionally, investments in shared kitchens offer inclusive economic opportunities. A 2016 survey of kitchen incubators by American Communities Trust found that 53% of kitchen renters were women and 28% were minorities. The shared commercial kitchen has become an important tool for overcoming obstacles entrepreneurs with limited resources face when entering the food industry.

The shared kitchen model is emerging and evolving across the country. A 2016 survey found that two out of three kitchen incubators were established after 2010. This growth among shared kitchens and kitchen incubators is due to a convergence of trends, including the expanded focus on entrepreneurship in community economic development and popular culture, increasing food safety regulation, and the rise and visibility of the broader sharing economy.

The spread of shared kitchens is being propelled by America’s changing tastes and an expanding market for healthy, fresh, local, and sustainable specialty foods, which is supporting a revival of food entrepreneurship. This market change reflects the impact of interrelated movements to shift consumer spending toward healthy and sustainable local food systems. Underwriting this change are private, public sector, philanthropic, and impact-driven investors that recognize the vital role processing infrastructure plays in local food economies.

These trends have given rise to a nascent industry of hundreds of shared kitchens and kitchen incubators in communities of all sizes around the country. Today, these kitchens are found in America’s rural farmlands, Native American tribal nations, suburban hubs, and dense urban centers. They range from 1,000 square foot community kitchens to 3,000 square foot springboards, to production powerhouses that exceed 50,000 square feet. Their business structures are also diverse, encompassing owner-operated, corporate, nonprofit, government, and university-sponsored facilities.

Shared kitchens are a combination of self-funded, grant-supported, debt-financed, corporate-sponsored, and investor-seeded projects. A considerable share are run by entrepreneurs who started their own food business and found that renting out their commercial asset provides additional cash flow for their own business. Additionally, many for-profit kitchens are started with the dual aims of supporting entrepreneurs and providing a personal livelihood for themselves, or in some cases a return for their investors.

While commercial kitchen sharing is nothing new, the formal shared kitchen facility is still a relatively new and evolving concept. Today’s kitchen models vary tremendously. They are stand-alone facilities as well as accessory uses in a wide range of developments including markets, community centers, and housing projects. Their facilities increasingly include event spaces, studio kitchens, cafés, and food hubs. Recognizing that shared-use rentals alone are often insufficient to sustain a kitchen, kitchens are expanding their uses in order to diversify their revenue streams. They are crossing over into contract packing of food products, venturing into distribution, launching retail outlets, and developing community-focused programming. Additionally, there are an increasing number of multi-tenant facilities that include both shared kitchens and dedicated, single-user production space. In this landscape, the line of what is a shared kitchen, kitchen incubator, and other enterprise is continually being blurred and reinvented.

We embrace this diversity and spirit of innovation. We use “shared kitchen” in an inclusive way to represent the common denominator between these facilities, rather than in the specific sense of a facility whose sole purpose is to rent shared commercial kitchen space. Our hope is to speak to this core kitchen function that is shared among facilities while embracing the unique, place-based and innovative approaches that continue to emerge. Because of the diversity of kitchen models and founder goals, there is no single “standard” kitchen model featured in this Toolkit. We encourage readers to establish their own goals, tailor their kitchens to serve their local communities, track their own outcomes, and continue to learn from each other. Our aim is to distill the process into universal steps and point out where the paths may diverge depending on the kitchen model and goals.

In our work with shared kitchens, we frequently hear that kitchens are more costly to build, challenging to operate, and less profitable than expected. This points to a critical knowledge gap. Many shared kitchens start without a clear idea of the key ingredients to success. As a result, too many kitchens struggle and eventually close. Others get lost in the planning stage. There are communities where shared kitchens seem to pop up and disappear every couple years. In their passionate focus on serving others, some founders neglect to realize their project is itself a startup, deserving of the same amount of market research, business model development, financial planning, and marketing as the food businesses they look to serve.

We will continue to post content about shared kitchens on this blog, so stick with us!

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