Reston farmers market season is right around the corner and I can’t help but wonder what new and local treats we’ll see. Each year, these mom and pop products come and go, either making it big with placements in major stores or, more likely, failing. Even in this current renaissance of artisinal and small-batch foods, the rate of success among culinary startups is incredibly low.
It is this very failure rate that motivated Cullen Gilchrist and Jonas Singer to start Union Kitchen in Northeast DC. I first heard of Union Kitchen from NoVA resident Charlie Berkinshaw of Element Shrub whom we featured in a previous article. Union Kitchen is, at it’s core, a shared commercial kitchen. But what sets it apart — and what intrigued me the most — are the commune-like environment and support offered to ensure new food businesses succeed.
I recently took a tour (led by the incredibly knowledgable and personable Bailey Weaver) and spoke with Cullen about what makes Union Kitchen so appealing to those starting out.
Union Kitchen currently has about 50 members from DC, Maryland and Virginia in their physical space, plus members who take advantage of their business services but work offsite. Cullen explained that they put each member through a rigorous vetting process to make sure they are committed to the success of their business and see it as more than a mere hobby. Prospective members are expected to present their business to a panel, not unlike Shark Tank. The panel then considers the viability of the new startup and how it can benefit Union Kitchen as a whole and then votes in new members. As you can imagine, there is a considerable waiting list.
In addition to the shared equipment and facilities, Union Kitchen offers a myriad of back-end business support. Cullen says these are imperative to change the rate of failure among new food startups. They offer, for example, in-house design/branding/marketing services, accounting help, and run a thriving catering business. This catering aspect allows members to earn income which offsets membership fees.
Union Kitchen also offers administrative space, plus office equipment and is home to the DMV Food Truck Association. This comes in handy considering a handful of members operate food trucks.
Candidates join as full-time or part-time members. Currently, the NE location is at capacity but Cullen and his partner are in the process of building a new larger facility in Ivy City, DC that will open this year. It will hold three times as many members and will have separate spaces for gluten-free, nut-free foods, etc. There will also be an event space and retail store.
Union Kitchen works hard to cultivate a strong community environment among it’s members. We wanted to meet some of these small businesses to hear first-hand how they have benefitted from their membership.
Watch for these amazing local products in stores, cafes, food trucks and farmers markets near you!
Union Kitchen has been a huge help in launching District Spice. We have received support, guidance, and opportunities that would not have been present had we not been a part of this organization. Additionally, the experience of working in close proximity to other food businesses provides great networking opportunities, making Union Kitchen more of a community than working environment. — Carolyn Shettler Blodgett
Singer’s Significant Meats
I’d say the biggest benefit, and my reason for joining UK, was the low cost of entry it provides new food entrepreneurs. While not planned, it turns out that several of the caterers that work out of UK have become customers of mine. Lastly, I’d say there is benefit in getting to meet others in a similar boat as mine. Their is potential for collaborations and friendships. — Doug Singer
Union Kitchen has given us tremendous tools launch and grow our business. As a bean to bar chocolate company we have demanding operations that normally fall outside the model of shared kitchen spaces. Union Kitchen has worked closely with us to address the needs of our bean to bar operation and helped us create a functional chocolate factory housed in a kitchen incubator; several fellow chocolate makers have been very impressed by this. Union Kitchen has provided valuable resources to help us gain traction into diverse marketplaces assisting us to establish and grow our bean to bar chocolate wholesale and retail business. Union Kitchen is also a very fun place to work, we are surrounded innovative food startups here to make a wonderful impact on the DC local food scene. — Adam Kavalier, Ph.D
Timber Pizza Company
The main thing I can say about the Kitchen is that obviously there are a lot of value adds that are discussed a lot (distribution, catering, business development help), but I think the most valuable things for Timber Pizza Co is being surrounded by similar start up food businesses. There is something incredible reassuring about working next to people that are experiencing the same stresses, problems, and growth as you. This helps you feel like you are part of a community, but also it can confirms when you are on the right or wrong path. If we were to just work in a kitchen by ourselves, I think we might feel added stresses about not knowing if we were doing the right things. — Andrew Dana
Thunder Beast Root Beer
Union Kitchen has been a tremendous asset: they’ve helped us navigate complicated DC regulations, provided many beneficial connections, and facilitated fun and productive collaborations with other members. And most importantly, their friendly staff have never shied away from offering enthusiastic taste-testing support as we worked to hone our crazy root beer and ginger beer formulas! — Stephen Norberg
If you have a budding food business and would like to become a member of Union Kitchen visit their Membership page to find out how.
1110 Congress St NE
Washington, DC 20002
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Read their blog.
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