For Ruby Chan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, CommonWealth Kitchen has been “a godsend.” The mother of four decided after 25 years as a marketing professional to turn her family’s recipe for ginger scallion sauce into a business, but says, “I had no idea how to take a concept to grocery shelves.” CommonWealth Kitchen offered not only shared kitchen space but education on all aspects of how to develop her dream into Fresh Zen Foods. Today, two years later, the kitchen also functions as her coproducer, leaving the vivacious entrepreneur more time to branch out into new markets.
Open since 2014, CommonWealth Kitchen, which began as a modest, 4,000-square-foot shared kitchen space in Jamaica Plain (then called CropCircle Kitchen) has fostered the birth of local favorites from Mei Mei to McCrea’s Candies, has tripled in size, and expanded the services it offers member companies. Executive director and cofounder Jen Faigel describes it as an “economic development organization that is working in the food system. If we can help entrepreneurs build businesses, we can create access and wealth,” she says. The roughly 55 businesses that share the kitchen with Fresh Zen are owned primarily by low-income women, immigrants, and people of color. Drawing on their multiethnic roots, they turn out an impressive variety of culturally diverse food products.
Chan describes her ginger scallion sauce, made with fresh ginger, scallions, canola oil, and kosher salt, as an “Asian-style pesto” that complements chicken, seafood, and vegetables. When she was a 12-year-old working in her parents’ suburban New Jersey restaurant, Chan remembers customers asking to buy “that sauce you serve with the dumplings.” Three years ago, when Chan’s then 13-year-old daughter told her, “I think you need to quit your job and sell sauce,” Chan says she “felt like the universe was telling me something.”
She sells the sauce at several area markets, online, and to institutions in health care and higher education. “This is the legacy of remembering where you came from,” she says, noting that her late father would be “so proud. Nobody would give him a job and executive chefs are using his sauce.”
Dorchester native Teresa Maynard came to CommonWealth Kitchen nearly three years ago, after reading about its role in Mei Mei’s creation. Following the birth of her third child, Maynard, who loves to bake and is allergic to nuts (as is her daughter), left her job at Harvard University to start a bakery for others in her community with the allergy. But she didn’t know how to begin. When she got to CommonWealth Kitchen, program manager Roz Freeman suggested she take the kitchen’s new 13-week food business start-up class. According to Faigel, the staff created the course shortly after the kitchen opened, when they realized that most business owners came in knowing next to nothing about permitting, licensing, insurance, packaging and labeling, and other essential aspects of operating a food business.
Maynard launched Sweet Teez Bakery, making nut-free cakes, cupcakes, pies, and brownies, in November 2016. Inspired by her Jamaican family of home bakers, Maynard produces sweets that include “tipsy” rum cake, a customer favorite, along with chocolate dream and lemon delight cupcakes, and a range of fruit pies. CommonWealth Kitchen executive chef Brad Stevens helped her scale up production. “I went from making 24 cupcakes at home to 240 cupcakes here,” she says.
Last fall Maynard received a large pie order from Whole Foods that pushed her to her limits and over the line to profitability. “I was terrified,” she says, “but Jen [Faigel] said, ‘You’ll never know what you can do until you do it.’ ” Family, friends, and CommonWealth Kitchen colleagues pitched in to help fill the massive order.
“Having this team of people, the other entrepreneurs, really helps,” Maynard says, noting that she and Heather Yunger, of Top Shelf Cookies, comprise “our little bakers’ union.” She also cites Celeste Croxton-Tate, of Lyndigo Spice, as “a real mentor.”
A Boston police officer for 23 years, Croxton-Tate turns to the kitchen to release job stress. She works the midnight shift, 11:45 to 7:30 a.m., leaving days free to cook. In 2006, encouraged by friends and family, the Roxbury native, who raised two boys as a single mother, launched a catering business.
With the 2008 economic downturn, catering jobs dried up. Friends had always asked Croxton-Tate to sell her chutneys, intensely flavored and influenced by the Caribbean and Indian foods she loves. A contact led Croxton-Tate to Nuestra Culinary Ventures in Jamaica Plain (precursor to CropCircle Kitchen), where she began to produce them on a larger scale. When that kitchen closed, Lyndigo Spice moved to CommonWealth Kitchen, and Croxton-Tate expanded the line to include relishes, fruit spreads, and spice blends, all of which can be used in cooking or as condiments. She sells them at farmers’ markets and online.
Because of her family’s dietary requirements, all of Croxton-Tate’s products are low in sugar and sodium. She uses different cooking techniques, like smoking fruits and incorporating different vinegars to add flavor, developing new products at home then cooking to scale at CommonWealth Kitchen. “I love the mission [of CommonWealth Kitchen],” she says. “It’s producing a lot of jobs for people.”
“We basically stalked Jen [Faigel]” to get into CommonWealth Kitchen, says Fresh Food Generation cofounder Jackson Renshaw. “We were one of the first tenants,” adds his partner, Cassandria Campbell. “We would not have the company if we did not have the support of CommonWealth Kitchen.”
The application process to get in is “pretty complicated,” according to Faigel. Potential members have to write a simple business plan and demonstrate to the board of directors that they will be able to “play well with others, listen and learn; and fit with the community.” They also have to commit to “at least make an effort to hire locally,” she adds.
Renshaw and Campbell met as high school students working at The Food Project, which provided their intro course to food justice and where food comes from. After graduate school and a return to her Roxbury home, Campbell approached Renshaw about starting a business that would provide healthy food options in her neighborhood. “It clicked one day that [food trucks] could be used to focus on food access in low-income neighborhoods,” Campbell says.
With input from the neighborhoods they would be serving, the pair decided to focus on Latin American and Caribbean food — with a healthy twist. Instead of frying empanadas, they bake them. They source all ingredients locally and don’t use any processed foods.
Initially Campbell and Renshaw did all the cooking. Now they have a chef and only do kitchen duty when it is extremely busy. Their food truck is at Dudley Square three days a week and downtown twice a week. A little over two years ago the partners opened a cafe in Dorchester’s Dot House Health Center that they consider “the heart and soul of why we started this work,” according to Renshaw. They also cater at nonprofits and downtown corporate offices. “The quality of the food is the same whether it’s at our cafe or at someone’s office downtown,” says Renshaw. “We’ve really figured out the food access thing within our business model.”
That is thanks in large part to CommonWealth Kitchen, which is giving entrepreneurs access to opportunity and the rest of us the benefits of their passion, hard work, and talents.
For information on Fresh Zen, Sweet Teez Bakery, Lyndigo Spice, Fresh Food Generation, and CommonWealth Kitchen’s other member companies, visit commonwealthkitchen.org.
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.