PRICES FORK — When Jessica Schultz was a Virginia Tech student, she said she wanted to sell homemade bagels and other baked goods at the Blacksburg Farmers Market — something she’d done successfully in Montana.
But her proposal didn’t fly. Schultz’s apartment kitchen couldn’t meet food preparation guidelines set forth by the Virginia Department of Health because she kept a dog.
Without the funds to rent a professional kitchen space, Schultz had to scale back her plans. But she didn’t give up — she sold bagels to friends and faculty for a while. It wasn’t until a few years later, when she made a deal with a pizza maker to use his kitchen in the wee morning hours, that Blacksburg Bagels got on its feet and into the market. Schultz grew that business, eventually joining forces with a partner and selling him her half of Blacksburg Bagels last year.
Now, as manager of Millstone Kitchen in the old Price’s Fork School, Schultz looks forward to helping other budding food entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running productively. She has just the place: a fully equipped and commercially licensed kitchen. It can be rented for the affordable rates of $16.26 to $22 per hour. The shared-space kitchen — the New River Valley’s first — officially opened for use on July 18.
“Small businesses have to go for efficiency to increase their small profit margin. Renting our shared equipment like the 60-quart mixer and commercial food processors can really increase efficiency,” Schultz said, as she walked through the stainless steel kitchen gleaming with jumbo-sized equipment.
The commercially licensed kitchen has a steam jacketed kettle, which is a double boiler big enough to simmer chili for several fraternities. It stands next to a tilting skillet capable of steaming a whole garden of veggies. Millstone Kitchen houses gas ranges, convection ovens, warming cabinets, a dehydrator and a walk-in cooler and freezer, each the size of a dorm room.
Not only can folks cook here, they can store their food too. They can also dispose of their waste sustainably. By the end of the month, a concrete apron around the waste receptacle will allow members’ food trucks to pull up to empty liquid wastes.
As the popularity of local, artisan food products grows, the desire for shared-use kitchens has risen too. Roanoke’s LEAP (Local Environment Agriculture Project) kitchen has been going for three years; Richmond’s Kitchen Thyme celebrated eight years this summer. Other kitchens are operating in Blackstone, Staunton and Monterey.
“By renting space in a shared kitchen, small businesses such as market vendors and food trucks can produce food in compliance with regulatory requirements without having to invest in their own facility at a stage when capital and cash flow are a challenge,” Schultz said.
Millstone Kitchen’s first member is Rachel Doyle, owner of HazelBea Catering. Doyle, a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York City, says her specialty is cooking locally sourced comfort food in an elegant way. She likes being closer to her Blacksburg client base as well as the opportunity to develop relationships with additional farmers.
“Millstone Kitchen is a beautiful location, and I’m also looking forward to the advantages of a shared space, having others to bounce around ideas with,” Doyle said.
At least eight other potential users have appointments to tour the kitchen in the next two weeks, Schultz said. She noted that women head all these businesses. One represents refugee residents, another those with mental disabilities.
Millstone Kitchen seeks to cultivate a supportive community of entrepreneurs who can share insights, contacts, and practical advice. Kitchen users will have access to professionals who can help with developing business plans, marketing, interpreting food safety regulations and sourcing ingredients.
The users must abide by some firm regulations. Animals and children under 16 are not allowed in the kitchen, and eating is forbidden in food production areas. Users must observe good roommate protocol — clean up their work areas after each use, refrain from leaving their personal stuff behind, and never, ever help themselves to anyone else’s supplies. A system of fines will be in effect, Schultz said.
The Millstone Kitchen, named to honor the history of millstone manufacturing in the Prices Fork community, is part of a three-phase development plan at the nearly 70-year-old former Price’s Fork School. The multi-function facility includes residential apartments for people 55 or over, a craft brewery slated to open in October, and the Millstone Kitchen. Local officials, entrepreneurs, and community members are guiding the project to determine how best to serve the community. The board is seeking additional members.
The project is managed by the nonprofit Live, Work, Eat, Gather Inc. Millstone Kitchen has received funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Vibrant Communities Initiative and USDA Rural Business Development Grant Program for construction and equipment, and is still seeking donations to support general operations.
“Donors who give $2,500 or more are invited to special sneak previews, parties and food tastings for the next two years,” Schultz said.
Although Millstone Kitchen won’t celebrate its grand opening until October when Moon Hollow Brewery opens in the adjacent gymnasium area, the kitchen is ready for entrepreneurs now. Applications are available online (www.millstonekitchen.org). The grand opening will kick off a business competition hosted by the Millstone Kitchen, which will include intensive business planning support and award as much as $10,000 in startup funds and in-kind services to winning businesses.
Everyone with a passion for local food is encouraged to follow Millstone Kitchen’s Facebook page for news about kitchen tours, the grand opening and other developments.