Margarita Carreto makes her mole sauces from scratch, combining over 20 ingredients to create its earthy flavor. She and her son have labored for years to grow their business, Mr Tamole, selling tamales at farmers’ markets and specialty stores. But breaking into the big time — finding a spot on the shelves at Whole Foods or other area grocery stores — has proved elusive.
Then this summer CommonWealth Kitchen, the Dorchester nonprofit where she rents kitchen space, found her a potential new customer: Harvard University. After sampling her red rice and mole with chicken in the room where John F. Kennedy once dined, the university’s staff ordered 100 gallons of her family’s signature sauce.
“It was amazing,” Carreto said. “Sharing our culture through food is our dream.”
CommonWealth Kitchen’s staff has a new strategy to help grow the small, mostly minority-owned food start-ups that it houses: Introduce them to the giant food service operations of Boston’s hospitals and universities, and their seemingly bottomless need for more food products.
Replicating Carreto’s success story has proved more complicated, forcing CommonWealth’s team to pursue several new revenue models simultaneously. Slowly, however, the nonprofit is figuring out how to make it work, and promises to open up new opportunities for craft sellers.
“We absolutely are committed to sourcing more regional, and we know that our students love to hear the story,” said Beth Emery, the director of Boston College’s dining services.
CommonWealth Kitchen is home to a host of small food businesses, with each chef renting time in its commissary kitchen to make their products. Several food trucks that started in its kitchens now operate their own restaurants; Clover Food Lab and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese were both early members.
But the makers of packaged goods — snacks, sauces, and the like — can’t go the food truck route. Their chef-owners typically develop recipes, then test them at local farmers’ markets. They might get picked up by a local specialty store, and hope that Whole Foods or another major market would give them shelf space.
And many of the small businesses developing recipes for traditional ethnic cuisines have struggled to find traction, said Jen Faigel, CommonWealth’s executive director. Home cooks unfamiliar with traditional Mexican mole sauce, for example, might hesitate to buy it from a store.
And many of the vendors lacked traditional funding sources. Few had rich friends or colleagues who could kick in extra money, and few owned homes, so they had no mortgage to borrow against.
“We said, they’ll never be successful and never get access to market or find capital” unless we change things, said Faigel. “Either we should shut down, or find a better way for them to access the market.”
So Faigel and her team came up with what seemed like the perfect solution: Any one of Boston’s big hospitals and universities could generate a huge amount of business for a start-up. And, increasingly, those institutions have been under pressure to buy local and sustainable food, and to support businesses owned by minorities and women.
Last summer, CommonWealth hosted its inaugural trade show at the Sam Adams Brewery, allowing 25 of its vendors to showcase their recipes for local stores and institutions. The kitchen also hosted tastings around the region, including one on Harvard’s campus, where the university’s dining service staff invited their colleagues from other nearby colleges.
“I tasted the product and I was blown away, the flavors were so delicious,” said Megan O’Neill, the associate director of restaurant operations at Boston College, after trying the Indian curry sauces created by Meal Mantra, one of CommonWealth Kitchen’s vendors.
The university had been getting curry and tikka masala sauces through Sysco, its institutional wholesaler. But BC was willing to switch because its dining program had set a goal of using more local products.
When a small vendor gets a big order, CommonWealth’s team steps in to help them prepare it, using its in-house team to produce products in large batches, and to meet the institution’s food safety requirements. It then works to find local distributors to help bring those products to campus.
Unexpected challenges arose in matching institutions with start-ups. Some of the college and hospital staffers that are most invested in sustainability or diversity — and most excited about finding local vendors — are not actually in charge of purchasing food. That job is normally handled by a food services operation’s purchasing department, which typically tries to keep ordering simple and cheap. CommonWealth products often cost far more than mainstream packaged goods, 25 to 30 percent more, in some cases, Faigel said.
Faigel said it’s impossible to go up against major food manufacturers when it comes to costs. “We can never compete on price; we have to compete on value,” she said. “And an alignment in values matters a lot.”
And some institutions ordered one-time deliveries, which weren’t a sustainable source of income for the vendors, who needed them to become repeat customers.
So CommonWealth Kitchen tried a different route, asking the institutions what foods they needed. The nonprofit now has its in-house team of chefs preparing less exotic food like apple crisp and eggplant meatballs for Harvard, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Boston Children’s Hospital, in the hope that purchasing agents will also order the vendors’ products.
“What we’re doing with CommonWealth Kitchen is trying to take small entrepreneurs and teach them how that business works from a buyer’s perspective,” said Crista Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communication for Harvard’s dining services. Getting kitchen managers and staff at Harvard to understand the mission is also part of the process. “There has to be that emotional investment.”
Vendors worked to accommodate other requests, too, and many tweaked their recipes to accommodate allergy-friendly menus. Paulette Ngachoko, the founder of Hapi African Gourmet, sells a traditional peanut sauce she had grown up with in Cameroon. But UMass Amherst was delighted to learn she’d developed a sunflower seed variety as well.
“We tried it and we were like, ‘We’re on,’ ” said Alex Ong, head of culinary excellence at the university’s dining program, which serves over 8 million meals each year.
After testing her sauce last semester, the university ordered a pallet of the sunflower sauce — over 1,200 pounds of product — which Ngachoko shipped to campus earlier this month. And when she makes a batch for another customer, UMass has agreed to buy the extra supply.
“It helps her keep on going, and it helps us out, since we’ll continue to be able to get a product that we love,” said Christopher Howland, head of procurement and logistics at UMass-Amherst.
Now he’s wondering what else UMass students might love.
“We were looking to source an authentic tamale, and I thought, ‘Let me see what CommonWealth Kitchen has,’ ” Howland said recently.
Faigel put him in touch with Carreto, who is now planning to scale up production of her tamales and begin selling her mole paste wholesale. And she hopes to open a brick-and-mortar store one day soon. “That is really our next step,” she said. “That’s my dream.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.