In commercial kitchen

Beth Volpe of Savory Eats by Beth (l) in her commercial kitchen space with her prep cook Tess Henderson

You work hard to market your services in your area, and when your efforts begin to pay off and your schedule fills up with regular and casual clients the reality sets in…there are only seven days in a week, and if you want a life, you are probably cooking on the five days most clients request service, Monday – Friday.

You may also choose to add an additional income stream and do some dinner parties or small events on occasional weekends which generates lovely additional income, but it sure does cut into your family and personal life….what is a busy personal chef to do?

Welcome to decision time…Do I hire additional help and do more than one client per day? Do I rent space in a commercial kitchen? Do I attempt to find licensed space in my community that may not be used on a regular basis, such as large community churches, the VFW or Elks Club or other such organizations that might consider allowing me to rent and use the space during the off days?

Perhaps your city has licensed, inspected incubator kitchen space available that can be rented on an hourly as needed basis. More of these valuable non traditional kitchen operations are opening each month and seem to book up quickly.

While we have always been proponents of going to our clients’ homes to cook for them in their kitchen, we know that to expand a business you need to be able to handle more clients more efficiently. Some of our members are opting to rent space in a commercial kitchen or are coming up with even more creative ways to be efficient (more on this next week).

For Los Angeles-based APPCA member Beth Volpe of Savory Eats by Beth, the issues were two-fold, “I was getting more requests than I could handle as a one woman show,” she said. “I only wanted to work three days a week doing personal chef business. I could do no more than one client daily which means I maxed out at three. In the kitchen I can do two completely different menus in one day. I now have six clients weekly who I cook for. Two each of the three days I work.”

The other reason was health related. With a bad back, lifting groceries and equipment was taking a physical toll on her.

What Beth did recently was find and rent space in a commercial kitchen, which she uses three days a week. But, she admits, the process of finding one was daunting. “I won’t kid you. Finding a commercial kitchen is no easy task unless you happen to know someone who has connections or you have your own connections,” she said. “I looked for weeks literally and it took a friend who I sit on a board with who saw an email I wrote looking for a kitchen, forwarded it to an organization he is on the board for and they contacted me. Sounds like spaghetti!!!”

Beth suggested trying churches, synagogues, civic organizations, non-profit organizations, and restaurants that only cook at night, such as bars.

An incubator kitchen might also be an option. Check to see if your city has licensed, inspected incubator kitchen space available that can be rented on an hourly as needed basis. More of these valuable non- traditional kitchen operations are opening each month and seem to book up quickly. An incubator kitchen operation serves multiple food service professionals. It may also provide multiple cooking station facilities where more than one chef is operating at the same time. The facility is licensed by the state so you can operate legitimately on commercial equipment with cold and dry  storage available which means you can prepare multiple entrees for multiple clients – while still continuing to customize recipes for clients with special needs or requests. If you are looking for incubator kitchen space, google search your area, or contact your local Board of Health and request a list of licensed facilities in your city. If they are inspecting them, they should know where they are.

What should you look for?

Beth had a number of criteria:

  1. Certified Commercial Kitchen (approved by the Health Department). This requirement varies according to the state you are in.
  2. STORAGE! If you don’t have places to store your equipment, utensils, and pantry you will be lugging it daily and that takes time away from cooking.
  3. Refrigeration and Freezer. Most places that prepare food have walk-in refrigerators and freezers. What a dream! No more ice baths. No more ice period! I use the refrigerator for cooling. You really can’t do that in a regular refrigerator. You will need the freezer for extra supplies (I don’t find I have much other than stock frankly). “I use it to freeze my ice packs,” said Beth. “We made the decision to purchase our own new refrigerator with an upper freezer for our grocery storage. That way we don’t worry about anyone getting into it. It’s closer to our work stations. Our foods are unpacked and immediately stored in our fridge.”
  4. Appliances are key. “We were not too picky when we were looking but you should be,” Beth explained. “You will need a minimum of two ovens to cook for more than one client. Make sure that they work. If they don’t work properly (which tends to be the case where kitchens sit unused for long periods of time) your food will not cook properly. We have this issue now but the equipment is getting replaced. You will need at most four working burners.”
  5. You need a work station for each prep cook you have.
  6. Make sure there is adequate ventilation and it works! Kitchens get HOT!!!
  7. Hopefully you will have space for your small appliances such as blender, rice cooker, pressure cooker, food processor and it does not take space on your work station.
  8. Check out the trash situation. Do they have adequate trash cans? Who empties them and where do they get emptied. “We are lucky,” Beth said. “We have two huge cans in the kitchen and we don’t have to empty them!”
  9. A dishwasher is crucial. “I say that because at the moment we don’t have one,” Beth said. “The organization just got approval to put one in. Hand washing dishes can take up to two hours a day in a commercial kitchen. Whatever you do, do not let your dishes pile up. It makes for a messy kitchen and you will be overwhelmed with dishwashing at the end of a hard day of cooking.”
  10. Make certain everyone understands the hours you are able to get into the kitchen. You will need access (key and/or alarm codes).

In her space, Beth is able to stop in a drop off groceries the day before or pick up foods the day after to deliver. She signs leases at six-month intervals and has access to the kitchen seven days a week if needed–and, she said, “You need that if you are catering.”

One thing Beth suggested is that you need to check your insurance to increase your coverage for cooking in a commercial kitchen and also to cover your supplies in case of a fire, etc. You may also be required to list the facility as an additional insured. Depending on your policy you may or may not have to pay more.

The pluses, she has experienced, are that she can take on more clients daily and increase her income, her  employees can unload and unpack groceries, she can cater and not do it from her clients’ home. Everything other than food–other than what she stores in the pantry–is stored in the kitchen. And, with an employee, she doesn’t do dishes anymore.

But there is a cost–beyond the financial. Some drawbacks are that recipes don’t taste the same since you’ve got different cooking conditions. You have to deliver all that prepared food, which can take time. You’re more apt to use more dishes and equipment since you have the space and the supplies.

But most of all, noted Volpe, “The biggest change I notice is that you no longer have that personal relationship with your clients. My long-term clients I know and love and we visit when I deliver. But, the new clients are basically strangers. One I have cooked for since March and I have only seen her one time when I catered a luncheon. I have never even met the other two clients. I deliver and the check is on the counter. I miss that part. The business becomes more like a business and not so much the personal touch. You are simply a food delivery service. They have no clue or empathy for how hard you work unless they see you in their kitchen cooking.”

So you have to weigh your priorities. Using a commercial kitchen space that provides commercial equipment, adequate counter space, and cold and dry storage means the chef can serve multiple clients on the same day while continuing to customize meals for specific client requests, cool, portion, store, label, and deliver with relative ease. It might allow the chef to serve multiple clients two to three days per week, allowing them to serve more clients than classic service allows, while also providing an opportunity to have several days per week in which to provide other services or develop other income streams. But it can be pricey and you may lose the personal touch that makes this career so special.

No two personal chef businesses look alike…they all reflect the chef’s level of expertise and also the chef’s personal and professional preferences…That is what makes this career exciting and just plain FUN! Isn’t it great to have options!

Are you considering renting space in a commercial or other kitchen? What have been your experiences so far?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

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Caron Golden

About 

Founder of premier organization of personal chefs inspires students to follow their dreams of culinary entrepreneurship.

Candy Wallace, executive director of the American Personal & Private Chef Association (APPCA), today was recognized by Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies as its 33rd Distinguished Guest Chef.

2 Comments »

  1. […] Is a Commercial Kitchen Right for You? […]

    Pingback by Bistro at Home on the Road | Personal Chef Blog — September 21, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

  2. Great article. I am also planning to open a restaurant and to design a commercial kitchen in it. Thanks for sharing your tips to choose the right commercial kitchen equipment.

    Comment by Eric Jackson — October 14, 2016 @ 5:07 am

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