Creative Columbia cooks seeking to expand their home businesses to a more commercial venture now have the opportunity, thanks to the COMO Cooks kitchens at Mizzou North.
The kitchen space is a project of Columbia-based Regional Economic Development Inc. and The Loop Community Improvement District.
The organizations received approval last month to open the commercial kitchen rental space. Columbia and other area residents seeking to either start a food-related business or expand what they already have established will use the facility.
Clients are in the onboarding process now, The Loop Executive Director Carrie Gartner said. Those seeking to use the kitchen space include caterers, barbecue sauce makers, prepared meal cooks and bakers. They are being assisted in that process by kitchen manager Bryan Maness.
Maness has more than 20 years experience in kitchen management, first working at various Columbia restaurants before he helped open and manage Broadway Brewery. He was there through 2012, when he shifted gears to be the general manager of Cafe Berlin for a year. He then opened the Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. Food Truck in 2013, which he continues to operate.
REDI and The Loop also are working with the Missouri Women’s Business Center and the Small Business Development Center to help with onboarding so that people can have all the business support they need.
Before a person can step into the available kitchens, which includes two cooking bays, a baking section and the smaller Annie Fisher Kitchen, they must have food handling documentation, employer identification numbers, insurance and other related business documentation with the state and city.
Those that have all of this likely will start working in the kitchens in the next couple of weeks, with some possibly starting next week. For those who need help, they will work with REDI, Maness said.
“My role is taking folks who are interested in the kitchen and assessing their level of interest and where their business is at,” he said.
Maness also will take clients through the kitchens and show them how equipment is used and provide information on safe kitchen and cleaning practices. He will assist and troubleshoot any equipment issues.
A goal of the kitchen is to provide an opportunity to people who might not otherwise be able to access a commercial kitchen, Gartner said. This will be the first large-scale commercial kitchen rental space in mid-Missouri and will serve as a food-related business incubator.
“It’s a big kitchen,” Gartner said. “We are talking to people who are baking in their home kitchen and need to scale up. We have a good range of folks we are talking to.”
A majority of the state’s commercial kitchen rental spaces are in the St. Louis area, according to thekitchendoor.com.
For a person wanting to expand a home-based food business, it takes a lot of expensive equipment. This often is a barrier for many.
“There are a lot of people out there who just don’t have access to loans or family wealth,” Gartner said. “They often are people of color or women. The idea was how do we make it our mission to have a very accessible kitchen.”
The rental cost of the kitchen is relatively lower than other similar kitchen spaces. Prices start at $15/hour with a minimum 10-hour per month requirement. The per hour cost decreases as the number of kitchen hours needed increases. The kitchen is open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Comparatively, the Chef Yo Shared Space in St. Louis has an $18/hour rate, or six-month or one-year contracts of up to 60 hours for $350/month. St. Louis’ Urban Eats kitchen has a flat $300/month for up to 20 hours. At the high end is STL Foodworks with a $25/month membership fee on top of kitchen hourly rates that range from $22.50 to $76.50/hour depending on the number of stations used. There also is a 16-hour minimum.
The Loop and REDI worked with The Ennovation Center in Independence, which is a similar kitchen and business incubator, to figure out the COMO Cooks hourly rental and minimum usage rates. Maness also was a valuable resource for figuring out pricing.
“He did a lot of discussion with folks about what is an affordable amount,” Gartner said about Maness. “That’s how we came up with that number.”
Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Humans Services Department requires a dedicated commissary for food preparation for sale, such as for food trucks, Maness said.
“I know from experience it is very difficult to find that kitchen space,” he said. “In addition to that, there are a lot of economic and cultural barriers to finding retail kitchen space.”
COMO Cooks will work as a site for people without access to kitchen resources.
“They’ll be able to access this kitchen to get their feet off the ground to launch their business,” Maness said.
The community saw a need
The COMO Cooks kitchens are the next piece in variety of creative spaces for Columbia residents. When REDI and The Loop conducted surveys of what was needed in Columbia, a commercial kitchen space was top of the list.
The COMO Cooks kitchen and other shared spaces are part of the Cre8Como initiative that seeks to pool Columbia creatives into one site, similar to a chamber of commerce.
Both organizations already were eyeing the Mizzou North kitchen space as a rental venture even before The Loop received a grant from Smart Growth America, the Economic Development Administration and Recast City to encourage local, small-scale manufacturing, according to the Cre8Como website. Another grant came from Etsy and the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth.
“(The grant was) to really revitalize the business loop area,” Gartner said. “We had a series of focus groups, did research and we had consultants helping us and, without a doubt, the No. 1 thing people in Columbia asked for was a commercial kitchen.”
Having the shared kitchen on the business loop could lead to more food-related businesses finding homes along this corridor. The makerspace through the Moberly Area Community College location in the Parkade Center likely will do the same for non-food-related businesses, Gartner said.
The grants make The Loop and greater Columbia into a Maker City and established the Cre8Como brand used by local small and home-based businesses.
“The two grants we received really focused on outreach to a variety of small-scale manufacturers and makers so we have a database,” Gartner said. “If we can all use (the Cre8Como) brand, we can start promoting Columbia as a place that supports small makers and manufacturers.”
This led to workshops, meetups, fairs and more, which now can include food-based businesses, such as local farmers wanting to create a value-added product from what they produce.
“COMO Cooks is part of our larger effort to support small-scale manufacturing — that’s also why the MACC Lab makerspace (is) a key addition to the street as well,” Gartner said. “It’s exciting, we’ve got quite the maker’s row happening here on the street.”
Maness became connected to the COMO Cooks project in August. He’s focused on getting the kitchens back into shape for clients. The Mizzou North kitchens had not been used in five years and was something of a catch-all storage space.
“All the equipment was gutted and accumulating random stuff,” Maness said. “My first task was getting it back into a clean functional kitchen and utilizing architectural plans to re-outfit the kitchen.”
A growth of creativity
The hope for businesses that start their operations out of the COMO Cooks kitchens is they eventually will be able to open their own business or partner with another business as they expand.
With the aid of the other business organizations, those who work out of the kitchens and other creative spaces along the business loop will hopefully want to open their business on the loop as well, adding to the corridor’s revitalization, Gartner said.
“(Expansion) just depends on their business model,” she said. “What we are finding is people need a range of help.”
This can include writing a business plan, financial, promotions and marketing and even e-commerce for those in food and non-food creative businesses.
“Given the pandemic, a lot of people we have assisted getting a website with online sales set up,” Gartner said.
The kitchens also can help the health department in providing food and kitchen safety workshops and courses. This can include product labeling or other health and food safety issues, Gartner said.
“We are helping incubate businesses,” she said. “There are people cooking for friends and family right now, but they want to expand and have a business.”