Union Kitchen Provides Recipe for Success for Food Entrepreneurs in DC
By Janis Reyes, Assistant Chief Counsel
In January, Advocacy staffers met with Jonas Singer, co-founder of Union Kitchen, at a new $2.75 million dollar, 15,000 square foot facility in the Ivy City section of Washington, D.C. Union Kitchen is a food incubator with two buildings in D.C. that provide many services to help new food entrepreneurs. They provide commercial kitchen space and tools, consulting advice, publicity, catering service, and distribution to their stores and other nearby outlets. Singer explained that shared workspaces like Union Kitchen are important to help small businesses cut costs by pooling resources. Union Kitchen management also helps members navigate complicated local, state and federal regulations.
Union Kitchen was created out of necessity. In 2012, Singer and his co-founder Cullen Gilchrist opened the Blind Dog Café and needed extra commercial kitchen space to make more baked goods. They rented a 7,300 square foot space in the NOMA neighborhood of D.C. with the help of an SBA loan; to save money, they rented the excess space to other small businesses.
There are 85 current members at Union Kitchen, 185 start-ups have utilized the facilities, and 20 members or alumni now have established storefronts. Singer estimates that in 3 full years, Union Kitchen’s businesses collectively have made over $50 million in combined revenues. Businesses can rent a shared space by the month, or rent their own dedicated pod at a higher cost. Union Kitchen also provides free consulting services, such as packaging, growth strategies and distribution, to help these small businesses succeed.
Advocacy staff took a tour of the Ivy City space and encountered many food businesses at work. Some of these businesses included an organic chocolate bar maker, a candy maker, and a barbeque catering company. We also walked through the shared refrigeration rooms, manufacturing and packing areas, storage spaces, and loading areas. The goal of this space is to lower the fixed costs of production so that these small food businesses can move out of their home kitchens and compete with established businesses.
Singer stated that the current food system is a challenge, and small businesses are often not aware of the rules until there is an enforcement action. Singer acknowledges that he is “paternalistic” with Union Kitchen’s members—he is their teacher, lobbyist, lawyer and expediter when it comes to local, state and federal regulations. Singer, Gilchrist, and the director of facilities oversee the maintenance of the facility. This regular maintenance is done to fulfill the requirements of FDA food inspections and OSHA inspections, as well as avoiding other DC government issues such as parking tickets. Singer also wants to create a Professional Employment Organization for its members, to take care of employee management tasks like hiring, employee benefits, health care, and payroll. They hope to provide many more shared services to their members in the future, including help with access to capital and legal services.