Lobbyist and former congressional staffer Alexandrine De Bianchi first started making her salted caramel, pistachio, and passionfruit French macarons as a hobby two years ago.
But when her employer told her it would be downsizing and laying her off within a year, De Bianchi began thinking seriously about transforming her extracurricular baking into a full-fledged business called DC Patisserie. Seasonal Pantry offered her a space to bake for a while, but the oven was too small for her to expand her operation. She then moved to a bakery in Bethesda, but the commute was long and the available kitchen hours were restrictive.
D. C. itself has hardly any available shared commercial kitchen space. Many owners of small food businesses drive out to Gaithersburg or Manassas for something suitable. Others use restaurant kitchens during off hours, but that typically means working graveyard shifts. As for opening a new storefront? It’s out of the question for many. “It was just cost-prohibitive, ” De Bianchi says. “An oven could be like $20, 000. ”
Now, De Bianchi is one of the first members of Union Kitchen, a new “food incubator” from Blind Dog Cafe owners Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist. The 7, 300-square-foot space, located in a warehouse at 1110 Congress St. NE near the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro, will be a hub for budding|growing} food entrepreneurs to start or build their businesses. Previously home to Moby Dick House of Kabob’s kitchens, the space houses two giant walk-in fridges and a walk-in freezer, cooking and prep stations, storage, and more. Members can partake in group purchasing to help lower their costs, and Union Kitchen takes care of everything from cleaning to utilities. A local illustrator and graphic designer have offices in-house for members to hire for their marketing, and an upstairs dining room can serve as a conference room or a pop-up restaurant space.
Union Kitchen, which is up and running this month but will formally launch in January or February, is the largest of several food incubators that have popped up or are coming soon to D. C. Earlier this year, Think Local First DC teamed up with Domku owner Kera Carpenter and her non-profit NURISH: The Center for a Creative Culinary Economy to launch StartUp Kitchen, where food industry vets select food entrepreneurs to test-drive their business plans. Meanwhile, artisan kimchee producer Katy Chang is converting a Petworth rowhouse into a community kitchen, “pop-uppery, ” and marketplace called EatsPlace.
Although they each are structured differently, their goals are the same: make it easier for small food businesses to start capitalizing on the locavore movement, these food incubators aim to foster a new generation of picklers, small-batch bakers, and other sorts of artisans.
Local government is also getting into it: Mayor Vince Gray’s five-year economic development plan includes a section about supporting the city’s food incubators.
Right now, there’s not much support for first-time restaurateurs or food business owners. “You go to a bank, and they immediately turn you away the minute you say you want to open a restaurant, ” says Domku’s Carpenter. “It’s difficult to get financing. It’s difficult to get a lease…And there’s no organized support system the way that there is for people in the tech industry. ”
That’s why she helped create StartUp Kitchen. It takes food businesses that are six to 18 months away from opening an establishment and gives them a way to test their concepts. Food entrepreneurs submit a business plan, and three are selected to present their ideas in front of a panel consisting of restaurant vets. The best plan gets a venue to test their concept and coaching from an industry mentor.