Big Dreams on the Menu
Ordinarily, I am not one to indulge in cake. On occasion, I will eat birthday cake or, for the sake of decorum, a slice of wedding cake, but that’s beside the point. When I think of sweets — and I think of them often — the typical cake, whether baked from a name-brand mix or bought from the grocery store’s bakery, does not rush to mind as a desirable dessert.
But today I am tasting a yellow cake with caramel frosting. Or rather, savoring. It was given to me the other day by Jerrica Tinsley, who prepared it in the kitchen of Chef Space in West Louisville, and it is a block of cake so generous that it must be shared among four people — two adults, two children.
When I met Tinsley, she was packaging and stacking squares of the cake for her business, Norma Je a n’s Ba k ed Goods. Only a year and a half prior, she was baking and shipping brownies out of her home.
“I was only in business for a month before I came in here,” says Tinsley. “I was just making cakes for friends and family, and it picked up. It picked up a lot. And even though I had a double oven, it wasn’t strong enough to keep up with my orders, so I outgrew my kitchen pretty fast.”
Utilizing her allotment in Chef Space’s nearly 4,000 square feet of kitchen, Tinsley packages the cake in hinged plastic containers, each affixed with a sticker that reads, Made With Love. The eight convection ovens at her disposal helped her move from home baking to a wholesale business.
“I’m working less hours to make more money,” she says. “Before moving to Chef Space, it took three or four hours to complete an order that I could do in two hours here. It wasn’t feeling as worth it, financially. Being here has really opened the doors for me to offer more products and to be able to keep up with larger orders. It’s been very nice to grow.”
Starting such a business from home is not easy. There are health inspections to consider, towel and linen service to pay for, not to mention expensive equipment. Chef Space provides all that to Tinsley and more — she not only has access to ovens without worrying about their maintenance, she has access to the inspiration of being around other chefs starting their businesses, talking about food into the early morning hours.
Located on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the Russell neighborhood of Louisville, Chef Space is a kitchen incubator that supports food entrepreneurs during the early stages of development in catering, retail, food truck and wholesale food businesses. The program is part of Community Ventures, a Lexington based nonprofit whose mission is to strengthen communities by helping people achieve their dreams of greater economic opportunity.
My first impulse is to describe it as a kind of artist colony for chefs — and according to president Chris Lavenson, it’s not an uncommon misconception. Creatives, if they are devoted enough, he says, will make the space for their creative work. Cooking, on the other hand, demands far more than space.
Housed in this 13,000-square-foot facility that was once Jay’s Cafeteria, the food entrepreneurs rent preparation and processing stations, which they can use 24 hours a day. There are bakers like Tinsley, and also food truck operators — Kentucky Taco and V-Grits are two — as well as caterers and meal prep services, all sharing this fully licensed commercial kitchen.
I am sitting with Lavenson in the Community Networking Room, which members use to talk to customers, retailers, anyone. “We have all the equipment that’s expensive for food production that could prevent someone from getting into the business,” he tells me. This includes ovens,
refrigeration, dry storage space, a dishwashing area, lockers and computers.
The intention behind Chef Space was to help this community with healthy food access — the Russell neighborhood is what is defined by the USDA as a “food desert” — and to create businesses that stay in West Louisville.
“We have very passionately and deliberately chosen West Louisville as the location,” says Lavenson. “If you believe people connect over food — business meetings, families — a community that is in a proclaimed food desert is at a disadvantage for connecting and creating opportunity.” There are 61,000 residents and only 30 restaurants in West Louisville, he notes. East Louisville, by comparison, has 67,000 residents and nearly 300 restaurants.
“One of the neat things about entrepreneurship,” he says, “is that it doesn’t discriminate. You can be any race, religion, gender, any educational background. There’s no limit to the success that you can enjoy. So if you’re trying to start your own business, food is a very approachable runway to get started.”
Since November 2015, Chef Space has taken care of all the things that don’t make the food taste better, as he puts it. The entrepreneur can focus on the core of their business. Basic needs such as towel and linen service, which can be a major expense, are taken care of. Chef Space also offers technical assistance and mentoring in financial analysis and marketing strategy. They have over $450,000 worth of equipment: from baking sheets to mixers to knives, the things that would be most expensive for the single start-up chefs.
Say you want to start a cookie business. “You may have the best-tasting cookie in town,” says Lavenson, “but you’re competing with people who are making a hundred thousand cookies a month, and when you’re making a hundred thousand cookies a month, you can make them in big batches on big pieces of equipment, and so your cost is lower and profits higher. Well, if you’re starting out in the business, it’s hard for you to buy a $10,000 mixer to make the quantities that work to be priced competitively. The advantage of having shared equipment is that you can immediately take advantage of volume-type production before you hit that spot organically.”
V-Grits started three years ago as a food truck and moved to stocking shelves in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio with their vegan cheese sauces. Though many recognize the truck, they usually don’t realize that V-Grits is an acronym: Vegan Girl Raised In The South. Owner Kristina Addington grew up, she says, in a traditional Southern family that served comfort food, things dripping with bacon grease. Her food is the same, only without the meat and dairy.
With the help and mentorship of Chef Space, V-Grits launched a product line of vegan cheese sauces that are sold in six cities, as well as prepared meals for local grocers and juicers. They’ve been at Chef Space almost two years, one of the first companies to sign on. “The price is affordable,” Addington says. “If you’re looking for a commercial kitchen, you’re probably not going to find something cheaper than Chef Space, and it’s probably not going to have the storage and equipment that this facility has.”
Going into the cooler weather, V-Grits has been looking for a way to serve customers beyond their truck. They are taking advantage of the event space for the first time. They are hosting a Vegan Supper Club — tickets sold out within days for their first themed supper, the
Down Home Dinner. They’ll serve 54 people meatless country fried steak, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese, corn bread and dessert. “Our customers can come in, sit down, chat, have fun, get to know each other,” she says.
Other new companies have the same fervor for growing their business. Ryan Cheong and his friends were home brewing kombucha for years before they moved into Chef Space in April 2016. When they started, they were brewing 45 gallons a month. Now they’re brewing about 800 gallons a month. Before Chef Space, they had no retail accounts, and now they have 60 in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. “We want to focus on smart, organic growth,” Cheong says.
Catherine MacDowell, owner and chef of the catering business Naïve, targets micro-farmers as their primary source of supply. “We are trying to make a big impact in the community, with working for local nonprofits, and having a sustainable approach to the way that we rethink how the traditional restaurant model is done.” Working in Chef Space has given her, too, the ability to test their concept and use a provided kitchen while their own kitchen, in Butchertown, is being built out.
Step into Chef Space at lunch, and none of the inner workings of the kitchen — the business growth, the cooking, the packaging — is apparent. But on an ordinary day, at lunchtime, people come in from the neighborhood to eat. Women coming from work. Children. And according to Lucretia Thompson, people come from as far as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Atlanta.
Thompson, owner of Lucretia’s Kitchen, serves her neighbors and visitors throughout the week: wings on Wednesday, rib tips on Thursday and fried fish on Friday. She also hosts a weekly Soul Food Sunday Brunch with live music, which she launched on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016.
“Soul Food Sunday brings people from all the surrounding communities, West End, East End and South End,” Thompson says, “but it’s a statement for the Russell community. It’s all different ages from 18 to 99. They come for great food!”
Just to ask why Thompson does it puts a smile on her face. “Passion, love, joy, quality,” she answers. She remembers growing up at her grandparents’ house where everything that happened — the homecomings, the decisions and discussions, the goodbyes — was done over good food, sweets and drinks. Anyone can do so over Thompson’s food at Chef Space.
I hesitate to say it, but whether it’s me leaving the place with cake and kombucha, or the chefs preparing plates, Chef Space is a place to have your cake and eat it, too.
Learn about Chef Space and other businesses participating at ChefSpace.org, and about Community Ventures at CVKY.org