Renting time in a commercial kitchen, issues, gotchas, etc.
May 26, 2014 3:46 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to explore leasing time in a "co-op" or shared commercial kitchen to start a small food business, making seasonal preserves and similar items in Washington State. Are there recommended blogs or books that discuss this from the business and planning ends, as far as what to look for, and well as how to deal with legal issues with bringing equipment and ingredients to and from such a facility (like fresh fruit, sugar, etc.). Do people store ingredients off-site, that sort of thing. (I'm mainly looking for non-state-official guides and written materials that deal with this subject from the producer end, just to focus questions away from the business itself or to Google search results to WA guidelines. Thanks!)
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Grab Bag (2 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've been running a cookie company online, out of NY state for a little over a year and a half. Several of the regulations we follow are different because we only sell on the internet and we are in different states, so, ymmv.

As far as I gathered from my research, the shared commercial kitchen thing varied a great deal. In some, you could rent storage space for your ingredients, packaging, and equipment, others you had to bring everything with you every time. Some you could purchase ingredients at a discount through the kitchen's suppliers. As I understand it, there's no hard and fast rule, so you'd be best looking up local placing and calling or checking their websites. Most people I dealt with were happy to answer questions, even if it was clear from the get go it wouldn't be a good fit or work out.

Plus, some places just let you rent space and ovens and mixers, some let you rent storage as I mentioned, some let you rent all sorts of tools and equipment, some were very hands on in helping you if you needed it with branding and packaging and logistics, others were very hands off.

It turned out that there were no shared kitchen space businesses close enough to me to really work, and the one that was fifty minutes away (still too far, but we considered it), was much too pricey for our fledgling company, but they were very knowledgeable, and happy to share that knowledge.

For what it's worth: we ended up calling locally businesses and found a small cafe that only served breakfast and lunch, so we rented from them and used their kitchen at night. They let us use all the equipment and store our ingredients there, even let us keep a fridge in the basement for cold ingredients. It was much cheaper than renting co-op space would have been, and we had free run of the place. (BUT, it turns out that we were actually illegal sub-letters and didn't know it. We found out when the owner came by and called the cops on us, apparently the tenants, who we had been told were the owners, hadn't paid their rent in two months and conveniently forgot to mention that to us. We moved everything out of their place that night, except the fridge, and never looked back. Never got the fridge back, either.)

We were able to find another place about a month later - renting from a church. As it turns out, the majority of churches that have kitchens, as well as Italian American Clubs, Knights of Columbus, any sort of community that has a hall - typically are approved and certified kitchens, and you can often get great deals there and still be legal.

So now we pay very little in rent, but we also have to cart our ingredients, mixers, tools, and supplies with us. There's no storage space and no privacy - on any given night there will be other groups in the gym next door being loud, or people coming in through to kitchen door looking for the AA meeting, and that sort of stuff, so it's a trade off. It's also a pain in the ass having to bring mixers, trays, and the assorted other ingredients, packaging supplies, and tools to and fro every time we are there.

TLDR: if a commercial kitchen doesn't work out, definitely look into the possibility of renting from a local business in it's off hours or a community group.

Good luck! There are a lot of hoops to jump through to have a legal food business. Feel free to memail me with specific questions, I'm happy to try to help if I can.
posted by firei at 6:03 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're in seattle, i've heard acquaintances(and my own mother) speak of at least 3 places like this.

Every single place, as firei said, had completely different rules. They also had different services offered and different levels of hands on/offness. It actually reminded me quite a bit of band practice spaces with some being super hands on and offering recording studios/spare cables/etc, and some just being "here it's a box with a couple outlets don't burn the place down" and being borderline slumlord-ish.

And blog posts or "guides" you'd find even for this area would end up either being specifically about the one or two places they had used, or speaking universally from a presumptuous place of ignorance.

The laws seem to be pretty open ended here, at least judging by the amount of variance i've seen in how things like ingredient and equipment storage were handled. It's seems to be just, and i'm not an expert on this, "you must prepare this stuff in a certified kitchen and basic food safety rules like XYZ must be followed" that are then essentially the food handlers permit stuff.

So yea, i feel like the answers to most of your questions are "it depends", and you'll have to just kind of feel it out by what seems reasonable to you. You can always call the health department after you find a place you like and go "hey, is this legal?".
posted by emptythought at 10:49 AM on May 27, 2014

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