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.