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00000179-cdc6-d978-adfd-cfc6d7ca0000Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @HarvestPM.

What Can The Sharing Economy Do For The Local Food Movement?

Luke Runyon
Harvest Public Media
Kathy Lee, owner of jam company Modern Gingham, fills jars at her shared kitchen in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood.";

The hardest part of starting a new food business should be perfecting the secret recipe. For many aspiring cooks though, the tough times come when searching for a space to legally make and sell their food. Commercial kitchen space, with stainless steel counters and industrial appliances, can be hard to come by. But as Harvest Public Media’s Luke Runyon reports, one tech startup is trying to fix that.

Kathy Lee meticulously pours strawberry rhubarb jam into small Mason jars. The jam is steaming, just off the stove.

These jars will be sealed and shipped off to vendors in Colorado, Nebraska and Illinois. Lee makes small batch jams and preserves, like strawberry cinnamon and blueberry balsamic, using local produce, sometimes even gleaned from neighborhood trees and backyard bushes.

“So today it’s rhubarb I had picked months ago, frozen and defrosted in here," Lee says. "And then organic strawberries I bought from the supermarket.”

The kitchen she's using? Lee doesn’t own it. In fact, she’s only here a few hours every month. And those preserves are cooking right next to a pizza oven.

“Not making pizza," Lee says. "I make jam.”

The kitchen is actually at a pizza shop in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood. See, if Lee wants to make big batches of jam to sell legally, food safety rules say she needs a commercial kitchen.

“If I don’t have a space to cook, my business is effectively done,” Lee says.

Ever since starting her jam company, called Modern Gingham, she’s been bouncing around commercial kitchen spaces. Building her own space was out of the question. Way too expensive. Her first spot was in a nearby restaurant. She outgrew the space quickly. The next few stops were in shared commissary kitchens, which tended to be inflexible, expensive and overburdened with rules.

“The hardest part of running a business should be selling what you make, not the brick and mortar that you’re working out of," Lee says. "Maybe that’s a naive perspective. But it’s been the most frustrating process.”

And what’s frustrating for one person is a business opportunity for another.

There are commercial kitchens all over the place – in restaurants, churches, community centers, schools, all of which sit empty at some point during the day.

Ashley Colpaart says that's a wasted opportunity. She and her app The Food Corridor essentially act as an online matchmaker between the owner of a commercial kitchen and an entrepreneur who wants to rent it. Before she came along, Craigslist was the best online option to find a space.

“There were all these under the radar ways that people were accessing commercial kitchen space to produce their goods, and I thought why not make the invisible, visible,” Colpaart says.

Think of it as the Airbnb of commercial kitchens. If the sharing economy has revolutionized how we travel, why can’t it do the same for the local food movement?

“People like to focus on farmers because it’s sexy," Colpaart says. "And they like to focus on chefs because it’s sexy.”

Local food distributors and commercial kitchen access? Not as sexy. But still vitally important to give food entrepreneurs a real opportunity to grow a business, she says.

Credit Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media
Mike Miller, owner of Basil Doc’s, rents his kitchen space to food entrepreneurs during the day.

Back at Basil Doc’s, the pizza shop in Denver, owner Mike Miller says it’s not just jam-maker Kathy Lee who’s winning in this situation. He gets some extra cash from rent.

“We’re in operation from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week," he says. "So the pizza shop sits empty for essentially 19 hours a day.”

Miller says since he’s established, he might as well give back. He wants to see the local food movement thrive in his own neighborhood.

“The barrier to entry in the food industry is very very, I don't want to say cost-prohibitive, but it is an uphill struggle,” he says.

And sometimes it’s the little things, like opening up the doors to your pizza shop, that can make or break a new business.