Sudden shutdown in a shared kitchen
The pandemic forces an incubator for small food startups to get creative all over again.
By Jen Faigel, as told to Jeff Howe
I solve puzzles, and the business of food is a really interesting puzzle.
My degree was in political science, but I was always interested in progressive causes. I started in tenants’ rights, then moved back to Boston to work for the Cambridge Housing Authority, and then the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Council. I’d been a carpenter, and knew construction. We would buy large buildings and preserve it for affordable housing. It was fun. I was this young woman working with older white men. But I had the power because I was paying all the bills.
When I was at the JP Neighborhood Development Council I worked on the Brewery Project. I knew zero about commercial real estate, but we renovated this 150,000-square-feet structure and it’s been really successful. In all these nonprofits I saw how you could change people’s lives by taking on the risk for them — for their home or their business idea. One of our tenants at the Brewery was a shared kitchen — an incubator for mostly immigrants with pushcarts or catering businesses, most of it illegal. But the money didn’t work. They hadn’t paid their rent, which I knew as the landlord, and finally we were going to shut it down. I went to the development council and said, “Hey, we should take this over. It’s basically a jobs program. Why not?” They were like, “If those guys couldn’t make it work, we probably can’t either.”
That became another puzzle to solve. So in 2009 I joined up with a few people and created what would later become CommonWealth Kitchen. (Former Mayor) Menino loved it, and we put together $16 million in financing. At first our cold storage was the size of a walk-in closet. This was for five food trucks. So we moved into the old Pearl Hot Dog factory in Dorchester, which already had a lot of the facilities we needed.
It’s been really hard, and that was before COVID. We’ve always focused on helping women, immigrants, and people of color. And what you find is that they make incredible food, but they don’t know about permitting. And their methods don’t scale. We help our clients with all that so they can concentrate on the food. Before COVID I had a staff of 28 and we were expecting $1.2 million just from the shared kitchen. Which is an enormous number. Last year we had products on the menu at Harvard and Boston College and Children’s Hospital.
We were finally getting all the little puzzles solved. Distribution, supply chain, sales. And when COVID hit, the whole house just fell apart. We closed the kitchen for a few weeks, but then we saw that there was a lot of food insecurity, and we knew we could help. So we launched CommonTable, and we’ve been cooking for food banks and trying to fill other needs. We make food. It’s what we do. So we got back to cooking. And the food banks, there’s not always a lot of cultural literacy there: Not every family wants peanut butter and crackers. That’s where we come in. One of our companies is Jamaica’n Me Hungry. So we make great jerk chicken.
But like everyone, really, we don’t know what comes next.
Jen Faigel is executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen, an incubator for restaurant entrepreneurs based in Dorchester.