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In San Francisco, a Food Coworking Space Aims to Back Entrepreneurs

After their market was closed down for lack of a commercial kitchen, a group of foodies decided to Kickstart a community cooking space.

When Iso Rabins founded San Francisco’s Underground Market in 2009, he wanted to help informal food entrepreneurs—whether web designers or grandmothers, students or lawyers—share artisanal products with an audience beyond their friends and family.

The Underground Market was successful, drawing hundreds of vendors and tens of thousands of attendees and inspiring similar markets in cities across the U.S. But after just a few sessions, the market was shut down by the San Francisco Department of Public Health because most of the food was not produced in certified commercial kitchens, as city and state laws currently require.

With the market on permanent hiatus, Iso became even more determined to find a solution for entrepreneurs to make the transition from home cook to professional chef and business owner without the prohibitive costs and risks. In 2011, he started making plans to open the Forage Kitchen, an all-in-one space for food entrepreneurs—in effect, the first coworking space for food.

Like the Underground Market, the Forage Kitchen will be an incubator for small businesses—a place where entrepreneurs can produce their products legally and affordably, get advice and support from other business owners, and find new markets for their goods. Iso has turned to Kickstarter to secure additional funding for the space, raising one-fifth of his $150,000 goal since the campaign opened on May 15.

The widespread interest in the Kickstarter campaign and the Underground Market that preceded it point to a clear need for additional affordable commercial kitchen space in the Bay Area. Valerie Luu of Rice Paper Scissors, a Vietnamese street food popup and Underground Market veteran, says it would fill a necessary void. “The Forage Kitchen would provide a rare thing in this town where commissary kitchens are extremely scarce and over-booked, while the number of aspiring food entrepreneurs is growing,” she says.

Arguably even more important than kitchen space for young businesses is the community that will surround the Forage Kitchen. “The power of bringing people together for the sake of innovation, collaboration and learning is a clear benefit to aspiring business owners,” says Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit business incubator that focuses on assisting low-income immigrant women formalize their food businesses.

Not only will business owners be able to exchange ideas, improve their products and gain access to new markets, they’ll have “an intentional community of food creatives who want to see each other do well,” Luu says. A community that wants to help your business grow and succeed isn't a part of most commercial kitchen spaces.

And the Forage Kitchen won’t be exclusively for food professionals. “It will be a space for all people who love food,” Iso says, offering workshops on everything from butchery to jam-making and hosting potlucks and events. It will have a café, a meat curing room, a beer brewing room, a rooftop garden, and hourly rentals of kitchen space and equipment—all available to the general public.

The decision to open the space to the public is part of what makes the Forage Kitchen’s approach unique. Not only will this help strengthen the community around the 10 to 30 businesses that will call the Forage Kitchen home, it will provide additional revenue streams beyond commercial kitchen space rentals. This flexible and community-minded approach supports Iso’s goal of “creating a space that will be a vibrant part of the city’s landscape and support people trying to live their dreams.”

Though the scope of its services is unique, Forage Kitchen is part of a larger network of kitchens all across the US that are dedicated to supporting small food businesses. “There are now over 225 kitchens in the U.S. that offer short-term rentals and many are true incubators for start-ups with mentoring programs and classes just like La Cocina and the Forage Kitchen here in SF,” says Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.

As part of the growing local food movement, these incubator kitchens are crucial to strengthening local economies. “The rise of the small-scale food entrepreneur has provided powerful indicators of a demand not only to share the food that people make but also to create new ways of making a living selling that food,” Zigas says.

Photo courtesy of Underground Market

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