Fresh pad Thai. Vegan sausages and burgers. Breads made with organic ingredients. What trendy café has this on the menu, you might ask? Well, in this case, the café is actually a collection of community centers throughout the Northern Wilds that are opening their doors to independent entrepreneurs with a flair for the culinary arts.
Both the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais and the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland are utilizing their commercial kitchen spaces for people to make, serve and sell their products. These shared-use kitchens, also known as ‘kitchen incubators,’ are a licensed commercial space certified for food production. Renters can use the kitchen by the hour or day to produce food while still meeting Minnesota and federal regulatory compliance. Basically, the commercial kitchens are serving as a rented restaurant space of sorts. And the results have been fantastic.
“People across the area have been responding well to the products coming out of our kitchen here,” said Honor Schauland, the director of the community center in Finland. “It seems to be working really well for both the people using the cooking space and the people interested in their products.”
Schauland said the biggest takeaway on renting the commercial kitchen to local residents is the fact it allows people a means to get their business started, or at least test the waters of the supply and demand stream.
“If you’re a small business trying to get on your feet, it’s a lot easier trying to start in our kitchen than it would be right away purchasing your own equipment,” Schauland said.
One example of this is Shane Dickey and his business Superior Small Batch (shown above). Dickey, along with spouse and business partner Gail Francis, make vegan-friendly sausages and burgers at the community center in Finland. They sell their products at regional co-ops, markets and grocery chains. Their sausages and burger products can be found from Two Harbors to the Twin Cities.
“Part of the Clair Nelson leadership’s intent when building their kitchen was to incubate small business, so they were glad to see us come along,” Dickey said. “Not only was the kitchen facility perfect for our needs, but we really appreciated the Clair Nelson staff’s commitment to environmental sustainability and green operation of the building.”
Schauland said Dickey’s Superior Small Batch is a prime example of someone utilizing a community resource to share their products with a larger market.
“What this model does is allow people like Shane the chance to test the market before making any big investments,” she added.
Diane Booth is the director of the Cook County Community Center. She said there are currently five different businesses utilizing the commercial kitchen to make their products for either retail or wholesale markets.
“The kitchen is not large enough to hold the equipment really needed for a business incubator kitchen but they make it work,” she said.
Nonetheless, whatever the community center in Grand Marais has available, some are finding success through utilizing the space. For example, Kaw Khang Authentic Thai Food is serving lunch and dinner multiple times per week from the Cook County Community Center. The business operates as a pre-order style restaurant, where a customer contacts the owner to have a meal prepared for them and they pick it up fully cooked. The meal is freshly made and picked up at the community center when it is convenient for the customer, though typically during the lunch or dinner hours. The owner of Kaw Khang Authentic Thai Food is Parinda Sukup. She is a new resident of Cook County who was born and raised in Thailand.
“Most of the time I am selling out, and that is about 70 orders,” Sukup said. “Though sometimes I have sold more than 100 orders in a single day. People seem to really be enjoying this authentic cooking.”
Both the community centers in Finland and Grand Marais rent their commercial spaces by the hour, at $15 and $10 per hour, respectively. In addition to being in compliance with state and federal health codes, the kitchens offer flattop grills, refrigerator space, industrial dishwashers and other amenities one might find in a North Shore restaurant.
“The benefits of using a community center commercial kitchen to start their business in is the ability to try out their business on a small scale without a lot of upfront investment costs,” Booth said. “Several of them have also connected and learned from each other the rules, regulations and even have shared kitchen space occasionally to save money.”
And while kitchen incubators are perhaps the buzz in 2018, another innovative approach to spreading passion for the culinary arts while retaining the local workforce is the forthcoming North Shore Culinary in Grand Marais. The concept is a partnership between Cook County Higher Education, Hibbing Community College, Cook County Independent School District #166 and a collection of regional business leaders, including the Cook County Chamber of Commerce. The idea behind the culinary school is to teach people to transform their passion for food into a professional career. North Shore Culinary will offer students hands-on learning and certification, with the program set to launch in early 2019. (For more info, visit: facebook.com/northshoreculinaryhcc)
Meanwhile, commercial kitchen spaces in community centers across the region are allowing people with creative ideas and a drive to share their product the perfect recipe for success.
“We really want to support businesses like this coming to our area,” Schauland said. “Plus, the food is really good and it’s been great to hear all the feedback from the community.”