PA Keystone Kitchens Incubator Feasibility Study: Working Toward a Vision of Sustainable Community Kitchens

Posted: September 18, 2009

For agricultural producers who explore adding value by changing a farm-fresh commodity into a consumer ready food, one of the biggest challenges they face is the cost of setting up a commercial kitchen – especially for a product that has not been tried in the marketplace.
Dr. Cameron Wold, an expert on shared kitchen development, provided insights at community visioning sessions.

Dr. Cameron Wold, an expert on shared kitchen development, provided insights at community visioning sessions.

Although a number of “not potentially hazardous foods” (predominantly baked goods, dried mixtures, jellies, and high-acid bottled items) may be made in the home, a larger number of foods need to be produced in an inspected, commercial kitchen. Throughout the years, church, fire hall, or off-hours restaurant kitchens have met food manufacturers’ needs in this regard. More recently, liability issues, and the need for a singular location for preparation and storage of finished product, have made this a less viable option. The best solution for many entrepreneurs is to become a tenant of a shared-kitchen incubator.

A shared-kitchen incubator is a commercial food processing facility which multiple tenants lease by the hour – often sharing timeslots and equipment. In addition to kitchen access, tenants receive business management, food safety and marketing assistance so that the business, in addition to the food product, can be launched successfully. Once food production is started at the kitchen, the tenants depend on that facility to remain open for business success. Unfortunately, history has shown that starting a shared kitchen is (relatively) easy and keeping the kitchen in operation is challenging.

Mike Waugh video
Winifred McGee and Larry Grunden speak with Senator Mike Waugh about the Keystone Kitchens project at the York Public Market on "The Mike Waugh Report". View video.

In 2005, there were no shared kitchens in Pennsylvania. Extension Educator Winifred McGee and PennTAP Food Industry Specialists Larry Grunden and Alan McConnell formed the collaborative PA Keystone Kitchens Team, to explore the potential for development of one or more sustainable shared kitchen(s) to support value-added agriculture. McGee’s 15 years of supporting food entrepreneurs in south-central Pennsylvania and PennTAP’s 10-year focus on the food industry’s technical requirements made this a natural partnership.

Initially, the Team conducted a survey of economic development groups and potential users to assess interest. Many farmer/grower groups indicated the desire to hear more about the potential of shared kitchens. The Team then made research trips to established shared kitchens in Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. By interviewing kitchen managers, the Team created a guidebook of initial steps, and a list of best management practices (BMPs) for starting and providing on-going support to a kitchen.

The PA Keystone Kitchens Incubator Feasibility Study (PA KKIFS) received combined funding from PDA, PA DCED (First Industries) and NE-SARE/ARC Appalachian initiative, all aimed at encouraging groups of economic development professionals, farmers and other entrepreneurs to collaborate in exploring the local potential of setting up community-based shared kitchen incubators. This funding allowed Team Members to engage Dr. Cameron Wold, a national expert on shared-kitchen development, to present the basic concept and his experience in assisting in kitchen start-up and management, at a series of six community meetings throughout Pennsylvania.The meetings, located in Philadelphia, York, Wilkes-Barre, Republic, Mercer and Coudersport, drew a total of several hundred stakeholders – the largest attendance being in Wilkes-Barre and Mercer.

The message that Dr. Wold provided was clear – a shared kitchen incubator can be successful, if there are enough tenants to share the costs and if there is a “community champion” – someone who holds the original vision and goals tightly and ensures that the kitchen does not deviate from this plan.

At these meetings, the Keystone Team also clarified the limitations of the shared kitchen concept.At several sites, farmers inquired about doing small-scale butchering, or making dairy products or meat dishes with “shelf life” in a shared kitchen.These individuals were disappointed to learn that the USDA/FDA requirements specify that no other enterprise can share kitchen at the time that a meat or dairy product manufacturer is doing his or her processing. This would mean that the total cost of operating the kitchen for a meat or dairy product (more than $100 per hour) would be borne by that single producer, rather than divided among several tenants (this sharing is what keeps kitchen hours affordable).

Following these meetings, it became the responsibility of local groups to take the lead in pursuing the shared kitchen concept. In support of the community-based initiatives, Keystone Kitchen Team members were available to provide direction for the feasibility studies, as well as the business and operational plans that would initiate the process – emphasizing the management overlay of the BMPs to increase the probability of each kitchen experiencing successful start-up. The team also provided referral to the Food Entrepreneurs website, and the best management practices list to guide start-up and operation. As a result, the following sites were assisted with their shared kitchen development:

  • Food Service Rentals, in Fayette County, (started while the team was in the exploration phase, but marketed as the site of a fall 2007 meeting); PennTAP team members also offered consultation on commercial processes related to the manufacture of coated pecans, salad dressing, and cheese cakes.
  • Old Gregg School Community Center, Spring Mills, Centre County (Licensed in December 2007)
  • The Kitchen Incubator at CTTC, Carbondale (Lackawanna County). (Open since May 2008).
  • Lancaster Edible Ventures Kitchen (launched at the Mount Joy campus of the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center in December 2008);
  • Munnell Run Farm Kitchen Interest Team (Mercer County) (still determining feasibility, provided group cohesion assistance, preparation of grant proposals to USDA and PA DCED, and fine-tuning their vision for a shared kitchen).
  • The Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE) (Philadelphia) (Recently opened by the Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation to allow Philadelphia home-based food entrepreneurs to transition to a professional facility and to encourage the use of locally grown, fresh foods.)

The energy that began with the initial community meetings has not been exhausted. Several other locations continue to study the shared kitchen concept with the possibility of opening a food business incubator in the future. As partners in their success, Penn State’s Keystone Kitchens Team continues to give guidance to these community initiatives.

Contact Information

Winifred W.  Mc Gee
  • Extension Educator, Business Management
Phone: 717-921-8803 x118