At Union Kitchen Grocery, Gatorade shares fridge space with Capital Kombucha, and Hershey’s bars are within arm’s length of Undone Chocolate bars. ’Chups fruit ketchups shares shelves with Grey Poupon. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are stored below Bear’s Made marmalade. What’s local and what’s not are seamlessly shuffled in the Near Northeast shop.
Even as recently as five years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to fill even a single shelf with locally made products. If anyone is to credit for the boom, it’s Union Kitchen. When co-founders Jonas Singer and Cullen Gilchrist opened the food incubator in NoMa in 2012, there was nothing quite like it in D.C. If food entrepreneurs needed affordable, professional kitchen space, they worked off-hours in existing restaurants or bakeries or hauled out to commercial facilities in the suburbs. Today, nearly 150 businesses have gotten their start or grown through Union Kitchen. Meanwhile, fellow incubators like Mess Hall and EatsPlace have popped up, helping to foster even more local food and drink brands.
The D.C.-made scene will have even more room to expand with a second $2.25 million Union Kitchen facility in Ivy City that opened two weeks ago. The new digs have more than twice the space as the original, allowing members to scale up their businesses. It also helps that Union Kitchen has evolved far beyond a kitchen. It’s now providing financial loans, marketing, distribution, retail, and other services.
“They can make it, move it, sell it all through Union Kitchen,” says Singer. “Now you can come in and, literally, it’s almost risk-free. If you come to Union Kitchen, you might lose a couple thousand bucks if you totally fucked it up.” But Singer claims only one Union Kitchen business, which he declines to name, has flat-out failed. A handful of others have decided not to pursue their food startups after breaking even or seeing small profits, he says. More common are success stories like TaKorean, RareSweets, Ice Cream Jubilee, Capital Kombucha, Chaia, and Jrink Juicery.
One of the biggest attractions of the new facility is sheer space: The 16,000-square-foot warehouse features a walk-in freezer and multiple walk-in fridges. “It’s bigger than my apartment,” Singer remarks walking into one fridge. Upstairs, the wide-open communal space is stocked with new ovens, mixers, and tables. Downstairs, members can rent their own “pod kitchens,” which they can access 24/7. There’s also event space and office space for Union Kitchen’s own team, which has grown to 45 people and now includes positions like a director of finance and director of marketing.
Other conveniences of the new space might seem minor but will make life substantially easier on producers. For example, electrical cords hang plentifully from the ceilings, and freight elevators mean bakers don’t have to haul products down a flight of stairs for storage and distribution. There are also conveyor belt dishwashers, which make it possible to do 250 racks of dishes an hour.
The Ivy City facility opened with 20 members to start. NoMa has dropped down to 35. Both have room to expand to 50 or more members. And there is certainly demand: Union Kitchen gets dozens of inquiries a month from people who want to join, although Singer says only one in five is “really truly ready to rock and roll.” To actually become members, business have to go through interviews, meetings, and a membership panel. “It’s almost like a fraternity rush,” Singer says.
For those who are already a part of the club, the payoff is already big. Undone Chocolate will be able to double its production to 5,000 bars a month at the new facility, where the chocolate maker now has its own dedicated pod. At the NoMa location, owner Adam Kavalier’s workspace was on the opposite end of the building and on a different floor from his chocolate temperer, which needed to be in a cooler, drier environment. “We were constantly going up and down those stairs,” he says.
Pops by Haley founder Haley Raphael will likewise be glad not to have to trek up and down the stairs while producing her cake push pops. But more significant are the free shelves that Union Kitchen is giving members for storing inventory before distribution. “Now we’re able to get into more stores because there’s room for it,” Raphael says. “We’re definitely at a place where we’re going to be growing really quickly, and this kitchen will be able to handle that.”
Meanwhile, Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., which now sells a line of frozen biscuits, moved from Mess Hall to Union Kitchen in March in large part to take advantage of Union Kitchen’s growing distribution network. The service now delivers a few hundred products from 40 to 50 businesses to 65 stores in the area including Whole Foods, Giant, Yes! Organic, and Glen’s Garden Market. This year, Union Kitchen members are on track to distribute more than $1 million in product through the service.
“We were running into a jam trying to transport the stuff. It’s really hard to go to six stores in the same day when you’re still trying to do your job right,” Mason Dixie co-founder Ayeshah Abuelhiga says.
Mason Dixie will be able to grow further with its move to the new Ivy City facility, thanks to its new dedicated space with more storage. “People don’t understand this, but catering takes up a lot of space,” Abuelhiga says. Because needs can fluctuate depending on what orders come in, trying to find enough room in a shared kitchen is “like a giant Jenga/Tetris game.” But with the new setup, Abuelhiga anticipates that Mason Dixie will be able to better navigate the ebb and flow. They’ll also be able to hire more people full-time. “We haven’t been able to really hire for a wholesale production person yet because we’ve been so limited in terms of the hours and capabilities,” Abuelhiga says. But with the new workspace, “they know they can show up to the same place every day, do their job the same way every day, and have a steady salary, which is huge,” she says.
The end result: Mason Dixie will finally be able to follow through with plans to sell its frozen biscuits in Whole Foods. Abuelhiga says they intend to increase production three-fold in the next three months—and 100 times by the end of the year. When Mason Dixie eventually opens a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Union Kitchen will remain its wholesale hub.
One of the next big things for Union Kitchen is to use part of its new facility for co-packing and contract manufacturing. That means businesses could outsource basic tasks like labeling or wrapping a product as well as manufacturing of simple things like tea or pickles to Union Kitchen. Singer is hoping to start beta testing the service by end of the year.
Mason Dixie is among those who’d like to eventually take advantage of a local co-packing service. Abuelhiga says there aren’t a lot of frozen co-packers in the U.S., and those that do exist are located in places like Florida, Michigan, and California. “We would have to haul ourselves out to these states to review the facility, try to figure out what distribution centers pick up from those points, how long it takes to get the product to places, so it’s kind of a pain,” she says.
Union Kitchen initially intended to have another grocery store in Ivy City but ultimately scrapped those plans for more production space. Still, Singer says it’s likely another grocery will be open by this time next year with more to come. It’s a business that requires a bunch of outlets to stay profitable, Singer says. But he also thinks it’s key to building the local-foods ecosystem and providing a bootcamp of sorts for businesses getting into retail for the first time.
“The nice thing is now they’re dealing with us who they can talk to face to face every day as opposed to trying to deal with someone at Whole Foods who they have no connection to,” Singer says. “So it takes a lot of the risk out and allows people to learn quickly so that they actually can be competitive and so that D.C. can actually start exporting products.”
The incubator’s members aren’t automatically guaranteed a spot on the grocery’s shelves. They have to hit certain benchmarks before Union Kitchen Grocery will order the product. “Then it’s the real world,” Singer says. “If the product doesn’t sell, I’m not going to keep buying it.”
Between constructing Union Kitchen Grocery in a historically designated building and running a grocery store for the first time, Singer admits there have been plenty of mistakes along the way. “It’s just hard operationally. It’s a different business,” he says.
And in general, Singer says he hasn’t relied on food incubators in other cities as models. He and his team have navigated their way through trial and error. “You screw up a lot of stuff and people get really mad at you. And you hope that your hair is good enough to get you through it.”
So far, though, Union Kitchen has made itself invaluable to local entrepreneurs. Raphael says her cake pops definitely would not be in any stores at this point without Union Kitchen. “We probably wouldn’t even be around. I would just be doing it in a small capacity like I was originally, operating part-time out of my apartment,” she says.
Abuelhiga also isn’t sure Mason Dixie would exist if it weren’t for D.C.’s food incubators. She expects to see a surge of startups as a result of Union Kitchen’s growth.
“I think it is a national model to be completely honest,” Abuelhiga says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery