By Karen Cord Taylor
Take one old hot dog factory. Add two big kitchens, eight convection ovens, 12 food truck spaces, several 15-gallon mixers, a frying pan logo, a 1,800 square-foot refrigerator and 45 start-ups. Stir in $15 million of public money, tax credits and donations. Cook for seven years while raising money, renovating the factory, and getting up to speed. Top it off with an executive director who knows her stuff.
Serve it to Bostonians at the Boston Public Market, the Greenway and commercial outlets all over the city.
Enjoy, as waiters say. You’ve just gotten the recipe for the CommonWealth Kitchen, a non-profit company in an old Pearl Hot Dog facility that nurtures start-up food businesses and also cooks for bigger but still personal food businesses that are so successful they can’t do it by themselves.
My friend Sally and I drove out to Dorchester, where the facility is, to see what was happening. I’d heard about this place from people at the Boston Public Market, since CWK, as is it known, prepares pasta for Nella Pasta and foods for other Boston Public Market vendors.
It helps to have the equivalent of a world-class chef managing the kitchens. That’s Jen Faigel. People like her are both commonplace and extraordinary. On the one hand, they’ve done what everyone is supposed to do. They’ve found their niche, educated themselves, gotten experience, grabbed an idea and made a success of themselves and their passion. On the other hand, when you find people like that, they seem rare.
Jen had worked in affordable housing, real estate development and economic development. The Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation was planning to tear down the decrepit factory and build affordable housing. Neighbors said no. “We want to keep jobs here,” they said. “What good is affordable housing if people can’t work?”
That was in 2009. By 2010, Jen, who’d been on the board of the former CropCircle Kitchen in JP, was brought in as a consultant by the Dorchester EDC to help create a food incubator that took advantage of the special conditions the 1910 factory offered. In 2014, Jen became the executive director of CWK, which absorbed CropCircle, and it opened with two kitchens.
One is for folks who have an idea for a food product, but don’t have the facilities or the know-how to make their favorite sauce, pickles or cake into a real business. Those budding entrepreneurs sign up at $35 an hour to use the large equipment CWK provides. Along with the space, they get instruction on crafting a business plan, getting the proper permits, scaling recipes, packaging their product, maintaining food safety, and handling finances, insurance and all the other nuts and bolts of running a small business.
So far, 45 businesses, including the Clover Food Lab, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and McCrea’s Candies, have gone through the program and grown to the point where they’re on their own.
Forty-five small businesses are now sharing the large kitchen. They include Sweet Teez Bakery, whose owner, Teresa Thompson Maynard, arrived while we were visiting to make her cookies, cakes and cupcakes. “I left corporate on January 16,” she said. “CWK really helped me know what I’m doing.”
She needed the help, she said, since she admitted burning the first cake she baked in the large convection oven.
Grace Connor, aged 17, was also in the kitchen while we were visiting. This tall, thin South End girl was making cookie dough ice cream for Little G, her nascent ice cream venture.
Jen said a Boston police officer makes chutney at CWK, but we didn’t meet her.
On the other side of CWK’s entrance is the second kitchen, devoted to cooking for outside vendors whose facilities can’t handle the volume they need. While we were there, three women were baking cookies and also preparing a bloody Mary mix for Alex’s Ugly Sauce. Owner Alex Bourgeois now has his sauce in every Whole Foods on the East Coast, so he is experimenting with new products.
CWK also makes sauce for Mei Mei Street Kitchen and pumpkin puree for Harvard’s dining services. In the fridge were fifty pounds of cilantro, which shows the volume CWK can handle. Nearly 60 percent of the fresh ingredients are local, Jen said proudly.
CWK has relationships that connects its businesses to lenders when the start-ups need investment to expand. It constantly cleans the fans, floors, drains and equipment. It creates a community of cooks who can keep in touch after they disperse.
CWK has 14 staff members and a $1.6 million budget, with 50 percent from earned income, matched with grants and fund-raising. Within five years, Jen projects earned income will cover 85 percent of CWK’s costs. She has space for more start-ups.
So if you are intent on creating your own culinary sensation and offering it to the world, contact Jen. Everything you need to sign up is at www.commowealthkitchen.org.