In one kitchen, Bob Suchyta perfects his muffins and brownies, trying to build a business in case the economy costs him his radio job. In another, Chelsea Britt, a recent college graduate, bakes in hopes of keeping her dad's panforte business going. In a third kitchen, Robyn Chandonnet prepares vegan raw cheesecakes.
There are dozens of stories behind the bowls and stoves and recipes at Chef's Kitchens, an incubator for food businesses. Stories of people shedding careers or adjusting to new and unexpected challenges. People with a dream and a cleverly decorated cookie or a family tamale recipe or the goal of owning a restaurant.
A small food business often starts at home -- cooking or baking after a day job, handing out samples, asking friends and family for advice. But after that, the home cook must confront the reality of insurance, permits, packaging, marketing. And a kitchen. Selling food from most home kitchens is illegal. Building one can cost tens of thousands of dollars; rental kitchens are scarce.
Enter the "incubator kitchen" -- for rent, stocked with equipment and licensed by health authorities.
"We want to be a place where people can start from nothing and grow -- and grow out of us in some ways," says Andrea Bell, the owner of Chef's Kitchens Co-op, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles.
CC Consalvo would like nothing better than to outgrow Chef's Kitchens. She and two part-time employees of Clean Plate Meals make and deliver organic "farm-to-table artisan" meals that accommodate dairy or gluten intolerance and other special requests.
Her dream is to own a cafe.
But for now, she says, she feels at home at Chef's Kitchen, where the five kitchens are open 24-7 for the 40 or 50 businesses operating there. Rents at the 25-year-old facility -- a stucco building whose front door leads to a narrow hall, with two kitchens to the left and three to the right -- run from $16 to $25 an hour, depending on how much time a cook, teacher, photographer or other tenant needs.
Last fall, Bell says, the economic news left her worried that "things could get pretty rough" for her incubator, but that hasn't happened. In fact, she says, her office is getting more calls, five or six a day, inquiring about the kitchens.
The recession has hurt some specialty food manufacturers, but overall, the industry reported $48 billion in retail sales nationally in 2008, an increase of 8.4% over 2007, according to a report by the National Assn. for the Specialty Food Trade. Experts say that tough economic times inspire creativity.
"I think the economy will stimulate the entrepreneurial mind," says Mari Fassett, who "searched high and low" for a kitchen after she began her successful Marimix snack company in 1993, and who now is building a four-kitchen incubator in Orange.
"Everybody has a dream of some kind of food . . . a favorite dish they really think people would love," says Bell, a former caterer with 25 years of experience. "People are a lot more interested in what goes into their food, the ingredients, the health aspects. By buying from people who are also concerned about that, you can get food of the caliber you would make at home."
Chef's Kitchens is one of about 60 such incubators around the country. La Cocina in San Francisco was conceived to help low-income people develop businesses. Others help farmers get their products to consumers. Mi Kitchen Es Su Kitchen is a consulting firm in New York that operates three incubators in the off-hours at kitchens run for another purpose, such as job training, says Kathrine Gregory, owner of the firm. Rents are around $20 an hour.
These days, Gregory says, she encourages people to "think small and package small." While a shopper might hesitate to buy a big box of expensive cookies, they're likely to feel comfortable with a $5 splurge.
At Chef's Kitchens, Bell and partner Sarah Cawley say some of their tenants work full time, and others work as little as four hours a week.
There's a bookcase of cookbooks for sharing, as well as informal advice about getting a spot at a farmers market or shelf space at Whole Foods, and referrals for packaging or insurance. (The cooks who use the incubator must get certification in food handling, and insurance. If they want to sell food in L.A. County, they also need a business license.)
And should a cook need an egg in the middle of the night, he or she can usually borrow one.
"Sometimes, you go in and the music is playing and people are dancing and singing and cooking," Bell says. "You are not stuck in your kitchen."
Cawley, who came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1982 and worked for Bell at her catering business before becoming her partner in Chef's Kitchens, has a reputation as a mother hen. Tenants say she can quickly get an oven fixed or a scheduling problem solved.
"The people who are here -- they put their faith in me," she says. "They have faith in me and I have to give that back. I don't want them to worry."