Building a commercial kitchen—whether it’s to anchor a new restaurant, serve as the focal point of a catering business, or produce a small retail food line—doesn’t come cheap.
Commercial kitchen designer and equipment supplier Avanti Restaurant Solutions estimates that preparing a 1,000 square foot area with mandatory power, fuel and water connections can cost as much as $15,000. Eight-burner stovetops, range hoods, fire safety mechanisms, three-rack sinks and hand basins, dishwashers, walk-in refrigerators, industrial-size stand mixers, tilting bratt pans, dehydrators, and blast chillers can push the price up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That’s just too much change for most local, food-focused startups to shoulder.
But what if the local pantry recently acquired a building with a large commercial kitchen and is willing to share it, charging tiered fees depending on how a business, nonprofit, or community outreach program is the underlying mission of the pantry is to fight food? Uncertainty? With the help of the Merrymeeting Food Council (full disclosure, I’m a member of this group’s steering committee) and a grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick is running a community kitchen project like this one in the 12,000-square-foot building, which it recently acquired at Brunswick Landing.
Other communal kitchens in Maine exist to support the creation of food businesses. Portland’s Fork Food Lab is most notable for its size and ability to weather a pandemic economy. This 5,000-square-foot community kitchen (planned to be relocated and expanded to a kitchen seven times the size) is home to companies like Empanada Club, Little Brother Chinese Foods, Mill Cove Crackers, Parlor Ice Cream, Plucked Fresh Salsa, and Shovel and Spoon (or manufactures have) their products. The city of Bangor is working on a $4.3 million project to build a similar space. Sometimes churches and community centers rent out their commercial kitchens on an ad hoc basis. Still, finding affordable commercial kitchen space in Maine isn’t easy.
At their main Union Street location, Mid Coast Food Pantry volunteers and staff have been preparing meals for guests in a smaller commercial kitchen since 2003. Over time, the organization has been repeatedly approached by other nonprofits that need to process collected fruit and vegetables, farmers looking for value-added produce, and caterers who need space to prepare for a large event, said associate director Hannah Chatalbash.
“It’s clear that while the existing (shared kitchen spaces) provide great service, they don’t have enough capacity to meet demand,” Chatalbash said. The second Hunger Prevention Program facility, purchased last spring, is equipped with loading docks that expand the program’s food storage capacity and a commercial kitchen. But the program only needs the kitchen for 10-20 hours a week to prepare the soup kitchen. So the organization decided to offer the hours they were empty to food companies, farmers, community groups, and nonprofits that offer cooking classes.
The goal is not to make money, but to help meet the nutritional needs of the community.
The kitchen is equipped with refrigerators and dry areas, convection ovens, six-burner stovetops, ovens, skillet pans, commercial dishwashers, food processors, blenders, and tools such as knives, chopping boards, measuring cups, graters and peelers, stockpots, colanders, skillets, fish pans, sheet pans, Speed racks and trolleys. Supply chain issues have slowed the process of outfitting the kitchen with freezer space.
Chatalbash hired Brie Nicolaou to oversee and coordinate the community kitchen. In this pilot phase, Nicolaou recruited a food producer and worked with non-profit organizations to set up cooking classes. She also works with a community group that wants to process wild Maine blueberries and speaks to a local farmer who needs space to make sauces a few times a year.
Chef Matt Chappell (formerly of Gather Restaurant in Yarmouth) and butcher Ben Slayton (formerly of Farmer’s Gate Market in Wales) are the first to use the kitchen to process food. The two, founders of Harvest Maine, a company that aims to curb food waste, use the communal kitchen to make spreads from blemished, misshapen local produce.
“The spreads themselves are all about healthy, tasty snacks,” said Chappell. These include Broccomole (guacamole flavors with local broccoli and cauliflower instead of avocado); creamy, slightly spicy spread made from celery root and paprika; and light but hearty beet and carrot spread. Harvest Maine plans to bring the spreads to tasting rooms at the Maine brewery in November, and then to health food and specialty markets in January.
Chappell was a volunteer at MCHHP when he heard about the community kitchen rental option. The cost of renting it, he said, is comparable to other community kitchens he’s looked at.
“MCHPP is an expert in getting food into the hands of those who need it,” he said. “In our own way, we’re tackling food waste in a pro-market way, and it feels good to be with others who share a common goal.”
Julia Child once said: “There is nothing like a kitchen that is truly made for a chef. Things that are meant to be used always have an inherent beauty.” She spoke of domestic kitchens, but the quote fits here. That’s because it’s a beautiful thing to share a well-stocked kitchen with other chefs to fill a community need.
Curried Carrot Coconut Soup from the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program
Typically prepared in batches of 140 by Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program staff and volunteers in one of the organization’s two commercial kitchens in Braunschweig, this soup is creamy, just slightly sweet and spicy, and vegan.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
8 cups roughly chopped carrots (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons curry powder
Pinch of red chili flakes
1 can of unsweetened coconut milk
6 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons peanut butter
Chopped peanuts for garnish
Chopped coriander for garnish
Place the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot. Set the pot to medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until tender, 4-5 minutes. Add carrots, curry powder, 1 tsp salt and chilli flakes. Cook for 2 minutes while stirring.
Add broth and coconut milk. Simmer the mixture until the carrots are tender, 12-15 minutes. Stir in peanut butter. Blend the mixture in a blender until smooth. Add more salt to taste. Serve hot, garnished with peanuts and coriander.
Local food advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of Green Plate Special, a column about sustainable eating in the Portland Press Herald and the title of her 2017 cookbook. She can be reached at: [email protected]