A kitchen incubator is the sort of idea that might work in that big building at 336 Pearl Street.

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I’ve spent considerable time during the past ten days researching the Chef Space kitchen incubator on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in West Louisville. Frequent blog readers might remember a previous mention of Chef Space at NAC; it was in September of 2015, and at the time our friend Chef Gina was exploring a similar idea.

The article included a link to Louisville city government’s press release.

June 29, 2015: Louisville’s First Kitchen Incubator

National and local leaders came together today to celebrate as Community Ventures, a Kentucky-based nonprofit corporation, broke ground on Louisville’s first kitchen incubator, Chef Space, located in the Russell Neighborhood. Chef Space will occupy the former Jay’s Cafeteria and will provide commercial kitchen space and business support services for up to 50 food- related early stage businesses. The facility will also house a retail outlet and meeting spaces open to the community. Community Ventures is renovating the 13,000-square-foot site with a late October opening planned as the first phase of a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization project.

The Chef Space web site explains the idea in greater detail.

We Are – Chef Space is Louisville’s first kitchen incubator. This 13,000 square foot facility repurposed the much-loved Jay’s Cafeteria, which had been vacant for several years. While many food entrepreneurs begin in a home kitchen, there is often a need for greater space and more suitable amenities as their business grows. This need for low-cost kitchen space led to Chef Space, which can be rented for hourly or monthly rates. Chef Space offers multiple food preparation and processing stations, access to capital, storage space, and training opportunities for its members. Opened November 2015, Chef Space currently has twenty subscribers, with the capacity for up to fifty entrepreneurs.

Our Kitchen – A kitchen incubator is a shared, licensed commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs (caterers, food truck operators, bakers and value-added food producers (jams, sauces, candies)) to rent at affordable rates and have access to resources to help build their businesses. We are a fully licensed and certified commercial kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment. Our aim is to add to Louisville’s already vibrant local food scene by creating a community of like-minded entrepreneurs dedicated to producing top-notch products.

Your Business – You are baker, chef, CEO, CFO, guardian of secret recipes, operator of food trucks, overseer of catering. You have big plans, big goals for your business, you just need state of the art space, or more of it. You have what it takes to make it, and a membership with us can only take you to the next level.

In a little over two years since opening, 13 members have “graduated” from the Chef Space incubator to their own bricks and mortar. Another is about to do so, and I took a look at V-Grits just last week: THE BEER BEAT: V-Grits, False Idol Independent Brewers, their bricks ‘n’ mortar vegan brewery in development.

In February, you can read all about Chef Space when my article appears in the next quarterly edition of Food & Dining Magazine, but for now, I broach the topic for a specific reason pertaining to New Albany, not Louisville.

Well-intentioned local folks often have big ideas about what sort of business “someone” (never them, of course) should put into an empty space, and concurrently, lots of us have pondered the ideal form of adaptive reuse to bring life back to the long vacated former La Rosita, or for some, the old Fashion Shop & Save at the corner of Spring and Pearl (336 Pearl Street).

Apart from the building being owned by a family who’d naturally have to be included in any proposed outcome, the essential problem — and potential solution — is the building’s cavernous size. It’s something like 25,000 square feet divided between a ground floor and basement amid a strictly utilitarian 1940s-era appearance.

What sort of use could be spread through all hours of the day and wouldn’t require hundreds of people to pass through the doors (and park their cars curbside) while still generating enough value to justify the selling price and remodeling costs?

Well, you’ll notice that Chef Space uses 13,000 square feet, which (I believe) doesn’t include public event areas, one of which is used by a member caterer (Lucretia’s Kitchen) to serve lunches and a Sunday buffet. Members come and go throughout the day, and while there are small parking lots on the property, plenty of area parking is available.

Granted, there’s no loading dock as such at 336 Pearl, but obviously trucks still were able to make deliveries to previous occupants, and would be able to make pickups just as easily with just a bit of forethought to utilize streetside parking spaces and the alleyway.

The overarching point to all this is that a kitchen incubator would have multiple uses as small-scale production facility, educational/vocational entity (in February you’ll be reading about Chef Space’s planned entry-level food service employee certification program), event space and retail, but without the need for the sort of parking one would expect if (for instance) a higher-volume business like a grocery store sought to operate there.

And, short of becoming a Munich-style beer hall with motorcoach parking nearby, Chef Israel’s eatery experience sadly illustrated that there is far too much square footage at 336 Pearl for any single restaurant business.

As always, the down side is paying for it all. At least in the beginning, member fees wouldn’t be enough to cover the entire nut.

In Louisville, the non-profit Community Ventures backs Chef Space, as coupled with numerous other development grants and sponsorship arrangements, all of it connected to an area-wide redevelopment effort. CV is doing this because it is investing heavily in these other nearby projects, and food is one of the pillars of the West Louisville revitalization aim.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done on a smaller grassroots scale, as Chef Gina imagined in 2015. At the same time, if Frankenstein monsters like the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative mean anything at all (granted, that’s debatable), then their applicability to a regional kitchen incubator makes sense. It might even interest the likes of One Southern Indiana.

“Sounds great — let’s move it to River Ridge.”

Rather, a kitchen incubator is the sort of idea that might have a chance of working constructively for wider benefit in such a building under present circumstances, far more so than yet another restaurant, or a skating rink, or paintball emporium, or some of the other bizarre ideas I’ve heard floated, all of which have in common a required number of customers and parking spaces that wouldn’t be realistic at this location.

Just a thought.

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