Katy Chang was working as an entertainment lawyer on K Street NW when doctors diagnosed her with a brain tumor in 2004. After surgery, Chang couldn’t even open her mouth to eat or talk. When she wasn’t getting better, her father, a retired Chinese chef and restaurateur, started sneaking food into the hospital. “I feel like it literally saved my life,” Chang says. “It was all his home-cooked Chinese food…congees, medicinal soups, because he comes from a long line of apothecarists and chefs. For them, food is medicine, is spirit.”
Chang, now 36, came home in a wheelchair, but she eventually made a full recovery. “I just realized life is really short, what am I doing?” she says. “It’s so important to connect, and what is the best way that I can connect? And what I’ve always done was connect through food.” Though she dabbled as a barista, bartender, and cheesemonger in addition to work in the arts and film, several years ago she launched Baba’s Cooking School, a line of edamame kimchi and fermented black bean sauce products based on recipes and lessons from her father. Finding a place to produce the food wasn’t always easy. She floated between restaurant kitchens, culinary schools, and commissary kitchens from Richmond, Va., to Gaithersburg and beyond. And she noticed other food entrepreneurs doing the same.
So she had an idea for a one-stop commercial kitchen, “pop-uppery,” and market that would make it easier for chefs and artisans to launch their businesses. In 2012, Chang bought a dilapidated three-story row house in Park View inhabited by squatters and transformed it into the new home for her food incubator called EatsPlace. It’s slated to finally open next week, almost to the day she found out about the tumor 10 years ago.
And EatsPlace isn’t even the only new place of its kind set to open in D.C. this fall. The city, it turns out, is in the midst of a boom in food incubators, making it easier and easier for wannabe bakers and pickle-makers to get their start. In about two weeks, a professional food production facility with a demo kitchen and event space called Mess Hall will open in Edgewood. Meanwhile, D.C.’s first food incubator, Union Kitchen, will open a second facility in Ivy City early next year that will allow it to add an estimated 70 more members. These operations aren’t only expanding—they’re also evolving past just being kitchens. “Food incubator” no longer only means access to professional ovens and walk-in fridges: These new food hubs offer everything from dining rooms and market shelves to funding and distribution opportunities.
EatsPlace will be unique in that it’s the first place in the city that was built specifically for hosting pop-ups. (Chang says she isn’t aware of anything like it anywhere.) Every quarter, the “pop-uppery” will bring in new chefs to the 40-seat dining room and bar (not to mention the front and back outdoor patios). To start, Mason Dixie Biscuit Company will serve biscuit sandwiches and platters for breakfast and lunch, while DC Born & Raised will offer twists on Southern food in the evenings and for weekend brunch. Both were selected from a pool of more than 50 applicants vetted by EatsPlace’s six-person advisory board, made up of lawyers, chefs, and other hospitality experts.
“Normally, restaurants they go from zero to 100 because they have to open. They have to start generating revenue,” says Mason Dixie co-owner Ayeshah Abuelhiga. “But they don’t really get to work out the kinks.” Mason Dixie did a number of shorter term pop-ups at Dolcezza and Roofers Union, but, Abuelhiga says, “it’s not easy by any means to couch-surf at restaurants.”
Abuelhiga hopes EatsPlace will not only give her and her partners Mo Cherry and chef Jason Gehring space and time to fine-tune the menu, service, and business plan, but also help them attract additional funding before they find their own storefront early next year. The same goes for DC Born & Raised owners Dwayne Moore and Larry Allen, first-time restaurateurs and lifelong friends who grew up next door to each other on the 5100 block of H Street SE. When they first began pursuing a restaurant, they found private investors were skeptical because they didn’t have experience in the industry. (They’ve brought on chef Charles Lyons, who’s worked at places like Georgia Brown’s and Hill Country Barbecue.) Moore says EatsPlace “affords us the opportunity to bring in possible investors to actually see the place in operation rather than looking at a business proposal, which is the direction we had gone prior to meeting with Katy.”
Rather than paying a membership fee or rent, the restaurants in residence share profits they earn in the space with EatsPlace. For DC Born & Raised, it’s a 50-50 split. Mason Dixie gets a 70 percent cut, on the theory that the place won’t be as busy during the day, when they’re serving, so there won’t be as much revenue to share. The split also depends on the business model: Some businesses may want a bigger share if they do more carryout, Chang says.
“It’s very safe for a person just starting out their own business,” says Chang. “They’re just out the cost of their own ingredients.” EatsPlace also supplies a host, bartender, and dishwasher, but the restaurants need their own wait staff and cooks.
In addition to the “pop-uppery,” EatsPlace will also rent its basement kitchen by the hour, and the upstairs will host classes on everything from whiskey to pickling as well as special events. Nooks in the dining room will display wares from EatsPlace producers and other small-batch brands.
Market space is also an increasing priority for Union Kitchen. Its forthcoming Ivy City facility will have a cafe and market selling members’ products by day and a bar by night. A second Union Kitchen retail shop and cafe is also coming to Capitol Hill. “It gives our members an opportunity to know they have essentially guaranteed sales, which helps them to grow their brands and also get some cash flow,” says co-founder Jonas Singer.
Union Kitchen is also branching out by getting into distribution. The incubator hired a distribution manager and bought a refrigerated truck to haul members’ products to 20 markets in the area, including Whole Foods and Yes! Organic Market, as well as smaller local outfits like Smucker Farms and Glen’s Garden Market. Previously, these food businesses were mostly making their deliveries themselves. “It grows their sales capacity, it grows their production, it reduces their administrative burden, it increases their cash-flow,” Singer says. And markets or grocery stores only have to call Union Kitchen, as opposed to making arrangements with 30 different vendors separately.
Part of the reason Union Kitchen is diversifying into retail and distribution is because of the growing food incubator competition, Singer says. One new competitor is Mess Hall. When it opens in Edgewood, it will have a demo kitchen and event space that gives members a place to showcase their products or hold investor dinners, classes, supper clubs, or anything else. The 10,000-square-foot incubator is owned by Al Goldberg, a former VP for the catering company W. Millar & Co. He was initially looking to start his own catering company, and the difficulty he had finding kitchen space, along with similar stories from friends, led him to create Mess Hall. He says he began thinking about the incubator even before he knew about Union Kitchen. (He actually looked at the space that later became Union Kitchen when he was first thinking of starting a catering operation.)
Like Union Kitchen, Mess Hall will offer memberships for people who want unlimited kitchen access as well as those renting it by the hour. Goldberg hopes to be able to accommodate around 60 to 70 food businesses on a regular basis.
But now that the District is finally getting the space and resources for budding food entrepreneurs, are there enough artisans to fill these incubators? Or has D.C. already hit peak pickler?
Since Union Kitchen opened in late 2012, Singer says he’s received more than 600 applications and inquiries about joining, but they’re not all from serious entrepreneurs. “We meet a lot of people who want to open a business, but they’re not actually ready for it yet. Or maybe they’re ready to open a business, but they don’t actually have money to pay for real services yet,” he says. “While there may be a lot of people in the marketplace who want to start a business, are they actually our customers? And that remains to be seen.”
As a result, Singer says it’s not out of the question that the city could soon have too many food incubators: “It’s very possible the market may have tilted the other way, and now there’s too much space, so that’s certainly a concern.”
Goldberg says D.C. is not there quite yet, but “I don’t think it will be too long before supply meets the demand.” If you add up the size of all the incubator space on the horizon, “it’s really not a lot relative to the size of the city,” he says. And the more incubators there are, the lower the barrier of entry for more people to give a food business a try.
To help make it even easier for one lucky business, Goldberg launched a competition called LaunchPad. Food businesses submitted business plans for the chance to win a $500,000 investment opportunity from crowdfunding platform EquityEats, a six-month membership to Mess Hall, and a ton of other financial, distribution, and branding services. The four finalists (which include Mason Dixie) will give final presentations and cook at the Sept. 27 grand finale party. Goldberg is considering possibly continuing the competition in the future. The event will also be a networking opportunity for buyers, investors, and food makers.
“It’s so much more than just space,” Goldberg says. “If we just provide kitchens and just let people come in, then six months from now are they still going to be around? Some of them maybe. But they need resources.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery