When local Thai restaurant owner Toa Green added ice cream to her dessert menu, the success was immediate. And it wasn’t long before her brand, Crank & Boom, outgrew the space in the back of the Thai Orchid kitchen where she was making it.
She wasn’t yet ready to establish her own ice cream factory, so she looked for a commercial kitchen.
“In the food business, the biggest cost to entry is usually your kitchen,” Green said. “And it’s hard when you are starting up — and you don’t really have a business that’s built yet — to pay all that up front.”
A commercial kitchen, even a small one, could easily cost $100,000, she said.
“And if you’re not quite sure if that’s the path you want to go, it’s really hard to make that leap ... or to convince a bank to lend you that sort of money,” Green said.
Instead, she rented space in the commercial kitchen of Lexington Pasta Garage on Delaware Avenue, and that wasa crucial step in getting her product into stores.
Tucked away behind the Pasta Garage’s kitchen and pasta-making room is a business incubator that is helping Green and other local entrepreneurs bring their food dreams to life.
Pasta Garage co-owner Lesme Romero said that when he and business partner Reinaldo Gonzalez started their pasta business, they couldn’t find any space cheap enough to rent. So they bought a one-car garage on Limestone and refurbished it. When they outgrew that after five years, they bought an empty building on Delaware and refurbished it.
But they knew they wouldn’t need all the space, even with a restaurant on site.
“I decided to do a (commercial) kitchen, help others and at the same time they can help me with the overhead,” Romero said. “Toa was the first to jump in.”
Others quickly followed, including Tim Jones, who makes Gents Original Ginger Ale; Ranada West-Riley of Lexington Diner, who has since moved out and into her own catering kitchen; and now several more, including Junbug, Athenian Grill, O’Brother Smokehouse and Whoo Wants Waffles.
Michael Barnett of the new O’Brother Smokehouse plans to prep meat and sides in kitchen space and smoke meats out back. Whoo Wants Waffles stores its food truck there.
Romero rents portions of the kitchen, prep, refrigerator space on a sliding scale, and space out back for a food truck or smoker, depending on what the start-up needs. Sometimes it’s a corner to process in, sometimes it’s shelves in cold storage, such as those used by Leo and Jean Keene of Blue Moon Farm, who make garlic scape pesto there.
On a busy afternoon, while Rodrigo Mendoza made raspberry purée for Crank & Boom sorbet, in another corner Marcus Wilkerson checked on the “jun” or fermented tea, that he makes for his Junbug Probiotic Honey Sodas.
Although he’s been in business for only six months, the effervescent drink, sometimes called the champagne of kombuchas, has been such a hit that he already has outgrown work space at The Weekly Juicery on Vine Street and moved into Pasta Garage.
“I felt almost like I got a scholarship,” Wilkerson said.
When he came to Pasta Garage, he had three retailers lined up, including Good Foods Co-op. “Now I have 20 or more, including 13 in Lexington,” Wilkerson said.
Would he have gotten there without the Pasta Garage incubator?
“I’m not sure. I have the drive, but I remember seeking spots to brew and it was very slim pickings,” he said.
Romero said that a passion for making something isn’t necessarily enough to succeed in business. “I tell all these guys, ‘What’s your account?’” Romero said. Business owners need a business plan, customers, contacts and a support network. And he helps with that, too.
Wilkerson said that when he’s working 12- to 14-hour days, it really helps to have others to commiserate with.
Green said the same.
“When you are here at 3 in the morning, it makes you feel better to look over and see somebody else working, too, and know you’re not the only one,” she said.
They share resources in other ways, too, including advice on where to find equipment, and techniques that improve productivity.
“The cool thing is we are helping each other out,” Romero said. “We’re in the same industry. ... How can we help with vendors? ... How do I get into Kroger? How do I navigate the health department?”
There is a distinct shortage of commercial kitchen space available for lease in Lexington, Green said. Barnett, who is starting his barbecue business, found that it difficult to find anything affordable or useful.
“They generally charge $25 to $30 by the hour, and you have a very limited time window,” often at inconvenient hours, he said.
Ilias Pappas, owner of Athenian Grill, with stores on Ashland Avenue and Locust Hill, is turning to Pasta Garage to grow his wholesale business. He will make five of his popular dips for sale in Kroger stores locally.
“When you get into the food-manufacturing business — and that’s what you’re doing when you’re selling outside your business — you do need a modern, approved facility,” Pappas said. “For me, it made a tremendous amount of sense to work with a kitchen that has the necessary approvals, and a dedicated space.”
His own restaurant kitchens are often tied up cooking for customers or preparing catering orders. And restaurants are regulated by the local health departments, but a wholesale business needs FDA approval.
For now, Pasta Garage’s commercial kitchen is maxed out, Romero said. But he is about to expand.
In three months he will add 2,000 square feet to the 5,000 he has now and will have space to offer to as many as five people, depending on what they might need, he said.
That’s great news for the existing entrepreneurs, who are growing, too. Green just bought a new ice cream maker that will allow her to triple production capacity for Crank & Boom. Like Lexington Diner, she might one day need her own space, but not yet.
Pappas also is happy for now.
“I think it’s a beginning for us,” Pappas said. “If we decided to grow later on, we may need to invest in our own space. But at the moment it’s more than enough for us. It allows us to get into the market without doing a big investment. That’s the biggest thing. ... Plus we have close relationship with Lesme; we share ideas about the business.”
Eventually, there might be more opportunities in Lexington for budding food and beverage entrepreneurs. Community Ventures, which recently opened the Chef Space kitchen incubator in Louisville, is looking at Lexington investment, although it has not confirmed whether it would be a similar enterprise.
“We’re looking at other local food infrastructure that would support local farmers, and small-business people,” said Sandy Canon, president of Bluegrass Local Food Initiatives for Community Ventures.