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'An Uber for kitchen': One nonprofit's plans to grow Hispanic small businesses

Celia Hack
Paola Mentis sells her Argentinian pastries at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market.

Empower Evergreen received a $1 million grant in July toward building the shared-use commercial kitchen.

Paola Mentis loves it when customers come back for seconds.

As the owner of Kónkeh Artisan Alfajor Pastries, she knows many of her customers have never heard of the sweet Argentinian baked goods she sells.

"They're curious about it, and they'll buy one just to try," Mentis said. "And they start working on it as soon as they leave my booth. And sure enough, they turn around and come back and get more."

For Mentis, business is booming. At the bustling Kansas Grown Farmers Market one Saturday, so many people bought her peanut ganache-flavored alfajores that she ran out.

But the simple solution — just bake more — isn't easy because she bakes at home with a regular two-tier oven and limited refrigerator space.

"When I used to make a couple dozen here and there, it was fine," said Mentis, who started her business in 2020. "But when I started at the farmers market, at the brick-and-mortar places, I am limited on how much I can make because I don't have any commercial-size machinery."

That's where Empower Evergreen comes in. Empower is a new nonprofit organization based in the North End of Wichita, which has a high percentage of the city's Hispanic population. The organization provides programming in small business development for community members.

Its latest goal is to build a shared-use commercial kitchen to help people like Mentis. In July, the city of Wichita voted to give $1 million of its COVID recovery funds to the nonprofit to help construct the space.

"It's kind of like an Uber for kitchen," said Ariel Rodriguez, the director of Empower Evergreen. "Our entrepreneurs or community members or users can access it at an hourly rate."

Celia Hack

The kitchen, which Empower hopes to complete by 2024, would give community members access to commercial-size cooking equipment without having to pay for their own brick-and-mortar store.

Anyone in the city will be able to rent out the space near the Nomar Theater at 21st and Market. But advertising will be primarily targeted toward Hispanic and North End businesses, Rodriguez said.

"If you drive down 21st Street on a Saturday, you can see various food businesses opening up the back of their vans or trucks selling tamales or tortillas or different products," Rodriguez said. "… So there's some really great ways that we think that offering this actual physical space to help your business can maybe help spring them forward to scale."

The kitchen is just a first step of Rodriguez's vision. Long term, he hopes Empower will develop a public-facing marketplace attached to the commercial kitchen.

Latino-owned businesses make up the fastest-growing segment of the small business ecosystem nationwide. But they're also less likely than their white-owned counterparts to receive loans from national banks, according to a 2020 Stanford study.

That's why Empower is seeking ways to help Hispanic-owned businesses overcome such challenges in Wichita.

"We're really trying to focus on some solutions that can help support these emerging businesses and really have a positive impact on the community," Rodriguez said.

The Hispanic population is one of the fastest growing populations in Wichita. A study by the Kansas Health Foundation estimated that the city's Hispanic population will more than triple by 2066.

Rodriguez says that means a key to Wichita's future will be investing in Hispanic-owned small businesses, like Mentis'.

"I would love to have a brick-and-mortar bakery with maybe a little coffee shop inside," Mentis said. "But it's also really scary right now because, of course, the investment for all of the machinery, the actual place, employees, all of that feels almost unattainable."

So for Mentis, Empower's commercial kitchen could be the perfect opportunity to move closer toward her dream.

"Being able to access a commercial kitchen will be a stepping-stone toward reaching the goal of having my own bakery one day," Mentis said.

Rodriguez estimates the cost to construct the kitchen will be around $2 million. The nonprofit is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise the rest of the money needed for the project.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.