LIVE TO EAT: “Chef Space: a kitchen incubator … and a community venture.”

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My original article about Chef Space appeared in Food & Dining Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 59). In January, I made a connection.

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

The full text of the Chef Space article appears here. After reading it, feel free to click through and reread the above.

CHEF SPACE
1812 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.
Louisville, KY 40203

Chef Space: a kitchen incubator … and a community venture.

When the legendary Jay’s Cafeteria closed for good in 2008, it marked the sad end of a restaurant and catering colossus in the Russell neighborhood of West Louisville. Now, it houses a new wave of entrepreneurs looking to make their mark.

Frank and Barbara Jean Foster opened Jay’s in 1974 at 504 S. 18th, then expanded in 1994 with a new and palatial 400-seat building just yards away at 1812 Muhammad Ali Boulevard. It was more than another place to eat. Jay’s was a hive for networking, a neighborhood focal point and a community center.

During their 30 years in operation, the Fosters served signature dishes like pot roast, ribs and sweet potato pie to a cross-section of the entire city. President Bill Clinton, global ambassador Muhammad Ali and boxing impresario Don King were among the guests, along with families from Russell and workers from nearby industries like Phillip Morris and Brown-Forman. They all came together over food.

Jay’s Cafeteria persevered even when Russell fell on hard times, suffering a litany of familiar late 20th-century ills: depopulation, dilapidation, redlining, counterproductive “renewal” schemes, poverty and crime.

When local industries began declining — some closing and others downsizing — the Fosters were compelled to sell. Two West Louisville churches combined to keep Jay’s open for a while, but by 2009, the building had become derelict, and demolition seemed the likeliest outcome.

Then new life came to the site when Community Ventures Corporation, a Kentucky-based nonprofit, purchased the structure and invested more than $4 million remodeling it for an innovative new use.

In late 2015, Chef Space was launched where Jay’s had served for so long, and for Louisville’s first kitchen incubator, the rest isn’t history.

Rather, it is future – exactly the prescription for West Louisville, as writer Michael Jones surveys in this issue’s feature story Dine West.

What exactly is Chef Space?

“We’re Louisville’s only non-profit kitchen incubator, dedicated to helping early stage entrepreneurs launch their food-based businesses,” explains Andrew Held, vice president of operations.

Christopher Lavenson is the president of Chef Space, and he proceeds to a bigger picture. “We’re part of a larger revitalization project, and this basically is an engine to create jobs through food entrepreneurship.”

Lavenson and Held bring extensive and complementary skill sets to their jobs. Held holds master’s degrees in business and marketing, taught marketing at Sullivan and also found time to manage restaurants at various points between.

So extensive and hyperkinetic is Lavenson’s résumé that it defies a brief summary. He’s been in manufacturing, wholesale distribution, retail coffee, software, solid waste and resorts (among others), but if there is a common theme, it was revealed in a “40 Under 40” interview with Louisville Business First in 2013, when Lavenson was asked to look ahead.

Q: “What would be your ideal position in 2025?”
A: “Serial entrepreneur emeritus.”

That’s it; serial entrepreneurs of the world, unite. At Chef Space, Lavenson takes his amassed experience and applies it to the needs of community development. He’s teaching tricks of the larger corporate trade to those innovating at the smaller grassroots level, linking them to what comes next.

Chef Space is just one moving part of a great many strategic plans and tactical partnerships undertaken by Community Ventures, the ultimate goal of which is the renewal of the Russell neighborhood. Moreover, with the city of Louisville directing unprecedented levels of funding and resources toward projects in West Louisville (an area under-valued by any economic metric), it is ripe for the sort of coordinated investment required for revitalization.

Louisville Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, whose 4th District includes Russell, says Chef Space fits perfectly into these efforts.

“Louisville is open for business, and Chef Space has developed the perfect recipe for success,” Sexton Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Our growth and prosperity depends on small business development in hospitality and tourism. Chef Space is a proven model for maximizing economic vitality by using a real life laboratory to test your concept before making large investments.”

Food will be a common denominator for the people coming to West Louisville to work and play amid revitalization projects to come — just as it is today for existing residents in these neighborhoods — or, as it sometimes is not, because West Louisville is a food desert, defined as an urban area lacking affordable, fresh food choices.

When it comes to dining options apart from fast food, one estimate finds ten times more restaurants to the immediate east of Louisville’s downtown than directly to the west. Viewed in this manner, Chef Space’s mission is brilliantly illuminated.

“The reason why we chose food is it doesn’t discriminate,” Lavenson says.

“Everybody is comfortable with food. Everybody has a recipe, everybody’s an expert in cuisine. Not everybody’s an expert preparing it, but they know what they like. For all entrepreneurs, specifically with food, it doesn’t matter if you’ve gone to school, if you’ve filed bankruptcy, if you have a criminal record, whatever your race, religion or gender because there is no ceiling when it comes to food.”

And so it is that with the assistance of a small support team, Lavenson and Held seek to bring these food dreams to fruition.

“Our whole mission is to help support dreamers who want to grow and create exciting opportunities in food.”

Boosting food entrepreneurs to taste success

It begins when prospective food entrepreneurs come to Chef Space with their ideas. They’ll be tailored to individual needs beneath an umbrella of various basic membership plans. Overall, the incubator’s intent is to cover all fixed costs for a monthly fee, allowing members to focus on their food.

Thus far at Chef Space, tacos have been filled and cupcakes baked, hot sauces bottled, jams jarred, and pre-packaged meals assembled. Food truck operators utilize the incubator as their commissary kitchen. Caterers bulk up and branch out.

With an area of 13,000 square feet and facility access around the clock, Chef Space offers a packing kitchen; two complete hooded lines; dry storage; and enough cold storage to permanently bend the building’s electrical meter.

Members have an exhaustive assortment of appliances and kitchen equipment, including charbroilers, convection ovens, food processors, fryers, gas stock pot ranges, gas tilting skillets, ice makers, mixers, meat grinders, and maybe even the stray old-school spatula.

Chef Space also seeks to help food entrepreneurs with access to capital, branding and marketing, logo design and troubleshooting needs that might somehow elude the exhaustive forethought.

Taken as a whole, Chef Space’s myriad services to its members comprise an array of possibilities for food entrepreneurship. These services are tools, meant to be engaged purposefully toward a defined end, and naturally, tools tend to be inert if they’re not held in the hands of people who know how to use them.

Most of the food entrepreneurs at Chef Space already can boil, brine, dice and ferment. The kitchen incubator teaches them to scale, pack, streamline, finance, improve and grow, because jobs are created when these businesses begin hiring employees.

And the more skills these future employees possess, the better it is for everyone. This is why the next stage of Chef Space’s outreach is workforce development.

But first, meet some of the food entrepreneurs at Chef Space who are working to get their food together.

Lucretia’s Kitchen and comfort food like your mother made

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend in January 2018, and also the second anniversary of Lucretia Thompson’s landmark “Soul Food Sunday.” Lucretia’s Kitchen regularly cooks, barbecues and caters out of Chef Space, where Thompson also offers a lunch service Wednesday through Friday.

Thompson’s pedigree is barbecue. Her grandfather’s eatery was locally renowned Thompson’s BBQ, and her family’s special Liquid Gold BBQ sauce is a genuine heirloom.

Lucretia’s bounty for Soul Food Sunday includes eggs, bacon, cheese grits, country ham, biscuits and gravy and waffles. Then comes fried chicken, rib tips, meatloaf, smothered pork chops and catfish; greens, mac & cheese, baked beans, slaw and sweet potatoes; for dessert, there’s caramel cake, banana pudding and peach cobbler.

Adrian Miller is America’s “Soul Food Scholar,” and he explores the art form in his book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”

“Soul food is really the interior cooking of the Deep South that migrates across the country. I think of soul food as an immigrant cuisine and ultimately a national cuisine, because black folks just landed in all parts of the country. But in terms of the difference between the two, soul food has more intense flavors. It’s going to have more spice. It’s going to be sweeter. It’s a matter of intensity.”

Chef Space’s Lavenson recalls the very first Soul Food Sunday in 2016. He’d heartily endorsed Thompson’s idea, and further recommended she sell advance tickets, all the better to gauge demand.

“On Friday she had 30 tickets sold, and I was ecstatic. We hadn’t had 30 people in the building – ever at one time, not even when the mayor came down for the grand opening.”

In Atlanta for a food show, Lavenson received a call from Thompson.

“Guess how many people showed up for Soul Food Sunday? 350 people! This place was busting at the seams. It shows you how hungry the community is for healthy food — and the power of social media and personal connections.”

But was Lucretia’s Kitchen able to feed them?

“They pulled it off. I don’t know how she did it. It was like stone soup or something.”

Thompson is busy … and bullish about her business’s prospects.

“Chef Space has been a great stepping stone and learning experience for us, and it has provided motivation for the immediate surrounding neighborhood that dreams come true. A brick and mortar of my own is the main goal for Lucretia’s Kitchen, and we are well on our way!”

V-Grits makes a vegan lifestyle easy and accessible.

Back when Shawn Steele and his wife Becky were “fairly new” to vegan cuisine, they fortuitously attended an event catered by Kristina Addington, who was the first plant-powered chef ever to win the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen competition.

Impressed, the Steeles quickly volunteered to help Addington and her business partner Jeff Hennis with funding for their V-Grits food truck, which subsequently appeared at many of the same animal sanctuary benefits and festivals the Steeles frequented.

“We fell in love with their awesome food, as there are so few people doing it right,” Steele says. “As entrepreneurs, we found they were savvy people who we could trust to follow through and do the right thing.”

Steele learned to brew under Rick Stidham at Louisville’s Akasha Brewing Company, and later in 2018, his own craft beer startup, False Idol Independent Brewers, will partner with V-Grits to open Louisville’s inaugural vegan brewery (one of only a few in the country).

When their project gets off the ground at the former home of the Monkey Wrench bar at 1025 Barret Avenue, Addington’s tenure at Chef Space will come to an end. She says it has been a stepping stone.

“We were one of the first companies to sign up with Chef Space two years ago,” Addington notes. “The timing was perfect. Chef Space provided secure parking for our food truck with hook ups, plenty of storage space, and more kitchen equipment than any food start-up could initially afford.”

The incubator-fueled growth curve of V-Grits has included a line of cashew-based vegan cheeses (cheddar, mozzarella and pimento) and a well-subscribed series of Vegan Supper Club evenings held in the Chef Space public events area.

“Chef Space has given us the ability to test concepts and grow our brand, and also the confidence to take this next step into a brick and mortar.”

Look for the V-Grits/False Idol vegan brewery to open in two stages, with the kitchen debuting in early summer, and the brewery shortly thereafter.

Handcrafted Elixir Kombucha makes it small, local and weird

Intriguingly, a different type of brewery already inhabits the collective kitchen at Chef Space, where I recently felt the sudden onset of déjà vu after spotting a young man diligently cleaning sixth-barrel stainless steel beer kegs with the assistance of a low-slung hunk of metal mounted by drums and hoses.

Speaking as a former co-owner of New Albanian Brewing Company in New Albany, the gadget looked very familiar to me, and Ryan Cheong had a cheerful explanation.

“It’s the NABC’s old keg washer,” explained Cheong, a co-owner of Elixir Kombucha. “You sold it to Monnik Beer Company, and we bought it from them.”

Elixir Kombucha’s keg cleaner stays plenty busy, because draft is ideal for serving kombucha (it also comes bottled), and the fledgling company’s sales have exploded since coming to Chef Space (106% growth in 2017 alone). Elixir Kombucha now is ready to leave the nest and get a place of its own.

Kombucha is a naturally fermented, effervescent and tangy probiotic tea, brewed with SCOBY, an acronym referring to “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” This beverage — which is thought to have originated in Manchuria — can be flavored with spices, vegetables, herbs and fruit.

The cachet of kombucha lies in its presumed health benefits, particularly for one’s gut bacteria, from the presence of amino acids, enzymes and antioxidants. Medical science predictably demurs, but health and well-being are what drew together Cheong and his two longtime friends, Danielle and Corey Wood. They began homebrewing small batches of “bootch” for their families and acquaintances, who found the drink tasty and healthful.

While kombucha isn’t beer (there exists only trace alcohol, less than half a percentage point by volume), it is no exaggeration to suggest that kombucha is at the liftoff stage experienced by craft beer a decade ago.

There are creative echos as well; Elixir Kombucha’s year-round mainstays are Lavender Lemonade, Watermelon Jalapeno, Blueberry Pomegranate, & Pineapple Ginger. They might be summer wheat variants at a brewpub – and it’s no surprise that mixologists regard kombucha as an ideal base for cocktails.

Far more prosaically, commercial kombucha makers need equipment similar to that used by brewers, requiring significant outlays of capital.

“We got to the point of needing a commercial kitchen,” Cheong says. “We googled and found Chef Space. They have everything we need to meet commercial compliance, and it lowered our risk. That’s been huge.”

“It’s been a wild rise, and now they’re helping us with an exit strategy.”

The next wave

Elixir Kombucha, V-Grits and Lucretia’s Kitchen all are in the process of exiting the Chef Space kitchen incubator. Daddy Rich’s already has. In late January, Rodrick Martin’s and Brian Allen’s soul food startup, specializing in chicken wings, cornbread and waffles, opened at 617 W. Oak Street in Old Louisville, specializing in chicken wings, cornbread and waffles.

A new wave of Chef Space members is settling into place. On MLK Day weekend — as the line for Soul Food Sunday at Lucretia’s stretched outside the front door — Jose Vergara was in back diligently preparing his work area for increased production of Don Tamal All Natural Gourmet Tamales, seasoned with Grandma’s Secret Blend of Seven Spices.

A few feet away at a prep table, Regina Swint tackled logistics for her line of Kentucky Hot Flashes (they’re spicy pickles). It was the very first day of her Chef Space membership. Another new arrival was Viviana Dias Ferreira; her Revolution Confections specializes in gourmet marshmallows flavored with bourbon, cold brew coffee and vanilla beans, among others.

Then I saw Vy Howard moving like a sculptor to delicately place finishing touches to one of her Syndesi Designer Desserts. This one happened to be a cake, but she also creates pies, French Macarons and other sweets.

Meanwhile, Lavenson and Held plot their next logical step, because — if a central aim of Chef Space is to provide food entrepreneurs with the means to scale and modulate their concepts for success in a hyper-competitive world, — it makes perfect sense that similar notions of modular scalability apply to those men and women who’ll be future members of their food service teams.

Hence the aforementioned workforce training plan.

“Technically, it’s going to be called a Certified Food/Restaurant Professional,” Held says. “It’s for those committed to being full-time, professional restaurant employees.”

Councilwoman Sexton Smith has personal experience with why this matters.

“I spent years managing a multi-unit restaurant operation covering several states,” she writes. “The biggest threat to success is high turnover. I completely support the vertically integrated training program proposed by Chef Space as the key solution to drastically reducing turnover, saving millions of dollars every year.”

“We’re going to put together a program of course work in a modular fashion,” Held continues. “When completed, it will allow people to enter restaurant work at a higher degree of qualification than they would otherwise.”

Everyone involved understands such a program cannot magically appear overnight, and so a broad coalition is being built, bringing as many industry professionals and community service organizations into the tent as possible. They’ll provide the necessary feedback about the program’s structure, and they’ll have the vocal support of Sexton Smith.

“The real beauty of this certification program lies in its simplicity. Graduates are trained in areas of quality, service and cleanliness before they fill out a job application. And more importantly, they will know what to expect on their new job resulting in greater job satisfaction from the start.”

Held also sees a parallel in the sharing economy.

“My pie in the sky is that this becomes an Uber for restaurants, with groups of certified individuals — on dish, as hosts, servers, or on line prep — becoming a resource to be dialed up as needed.”

These newly certified food service professionals might rove, as capable of helping more than one restaurant get through periods of short-staffing, or their enhanced training and experience might lead directly to full-time positions — and better pay.

“The reason they’re not going to school now for certifications and training is because they’re not going to school,” concludes Held. “We have a facility that functions as an operating kitchen, and it seems like an opportunity to use the resources we’ve already built and put in place for some things outside our original mission.”

Chef Space’s mission is evolving. For the kitchen incubator’s members, there are fringe benefits in camaraderie, mutual assistance and shared experience. In the Russell neighborhood, there is renewed hope for a community’s future.

As Lavenson said: “Food doesn’t discriminate.”

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