On a list of common fantasies, it's near the top. Just about anybody who loves to cook has imagined going pro — being a chef, opening their own restaurant or catering business. It's the culinary equivalent of saying, "I could write a book."
But most people never put pen to paper. And though they may cook for family and friends, they never make the leap required to sell food to strangers.
Kris Parmelee, on the other hand, was ready to do the work. Parmelee, a successful fundraising consultant, had reached a point in life where she felt it was time to make a change. She'd been cooking since she was a kid, had worked for a caterer and in a bakery. She knew she had the chops. And, she says, "I didn't want to just talk about it."
Parmelee needed a kitchen.
It's one thing to know how to cook. It's something else to have the $60,000 it can take to outfit a professional-grade kitchen. To get started as a personal chef, Parmelee turned to Indy's Kitchen, where she could rent a commercial kitchen by the hour.
Linda Gilkerson, owner of Indy's Kitchen, doesn't claim to be a great chef. "I'm awful in the kitchen," she readily admits. Gilkerson's talent is for business. She has owned and worked in various businesses for 30 years. At one point, she created a nonprofit organization called the Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative, which worked with people who wanted to be entrepreneurs but didn't know where to start.
Gilkerson's previous job involved selling franchises for Wild Birds Unlimited. "It was a good fit and I liked the work," she says, "but I just got antsy. I wanted to do something else."
In the summer of 2009, Gilkerson and her husband, Tom Abeel, decided she should buy a business. They worked with a broker and spent several months looking at existing businesses. They couldn't find one they thought was worth the money.
Gilkerson was not immune to the fantasy of running her own food business, her self-confessed shortcomings as a chef notwithstanding. She thought she could make cookies or cupcakes and sell them wholesale. So she began looking for a kitchen to rent in Indianapolis.
"I couldn't find one," she recalls.
The nearest rental facility Gilkerson could locate was in a warehouse space on the near southside of Chicago. Alexis Leverenz, the co-owner of Kitchen Chicago, invited her up for a visit. "She said, 'I've been in business five years. Come up here and I'll tell you what I know.'"
Gilkerson and Abeel made the trip. It didn't take them long to realize that they had discovered a way of filling a hole in the local culinary scene. They enlisted friends and fellow entrepreneurs Paul Pickett and William Powell, owner of the Monon Coffee Shop, as partners and began the search for a suitable space to create a rental kitchen of their own.
That search led them to the renovated development owned by Larry Jones at the corner of 24th and Central, on the edge of Fall Creek Place. It had previously been home to Tim and Avi's architectural salvage bazaar and then site of the first Winter Farmers Market. It offered a large open space with generous windows in front.
According to Gilkerson, Jones told her he'd heard people express a desire for a rental kitchen in the city but no one had done it.
We don't have anything like this in Indy
Not everyone was won over by the idea. Bankers, in particular, didn't seem to get it.
"Some of the bankers said to me, 'Well, we don't have anything like this in Indianapolis,'" recalls Gilkerson. "We got turned down by 13 banks and none of the four of us had ever been turned down for a loan before. Our credit was great. We had a business plan that was good. The projections were pretty reasonable."
The Small Business Association wasn't much help, either. SBA support can be crucial to getting a small business off the ground, since the SBA will guarantee 90 percent of a bank loan, all but eliminating the potential risk to a lender. But since the SBA wasn't willing to consider the rental kitchen a viable business idea, bankers had cold feet.
The partners wound up financing Indy's Kitchen themselves.
Their conversations with city food lovers provided the confidence they needed. Laura Henderson, one of the leaders of the Eat Local movement and a founder of the Winter Farmers Market, provided a space for them at the market to spread the word about Indy's Kitchen. "I knew we were on to something," says Gilkerson. "There was enough response immediately that I felt good about it."
Indy's Kitchen opened its doors in July and is already home to nine renters, from Kris Parmelee's Avec Moi take-out meals to caterers AlliCarte Catering and Fed by Ted, personal chef Meals by Michael, Art Z's baked goods and Sweet Ass Cupcakes. Safari Kitchen, a mobile unit serving dishes inspired by Kenyan cuisine has begun using the kitchen, which is also making space for specialty providers Fermenti Artisan (sauerkraut) and HB's Sauce Company (BBQ sauces).
The Kitchen also plays host to occasional cooking classes and demonstrations and is experimenting with turning the public space it shares with a new edition of the Monon Coffee Company into a supper club for special events.
"Some people are a little surprised that I don't have a cooking background," says Gilkerson. "What I've figured out so far is the people who come in to use the Kitchen are very knowledgeable about their product and about how they want their business to go. But some of them need some help with the marketing pieces and with the logistics of how you bill people, how you get your foot in the door in different places. So I think my background makes a good fit."
HB's Sauce Company
T.J. McAfoos and his wife Karen started making their line of BBQ sauces, HB's Sauce Company, at Indy's Kitchen in August. McAfoos, who works fulltime for Johnson & Johnson as an electrophysiology clinical rep, fell in love with barbeque culture when he was in the Navy, stationed in Texas, in 1994. That's when someone turned him on to smoked beef brisket or, as McAfoos tells it: "The most heavenly piece of beef you could ever get."
That was the beginning of a BBQ pilgrimage that took McAfoos to Virginia, Kansas City, and North Carolina, among other stations of the BBQ cross. "My taste for barbeque has developed through all those different regions and different sauces," he says. "Our sauces are basically derived from that."
Where some BBQ fans swear by one regional style or another, McAfoos loves it all. "I embrace everything barbeque," he says. "It's a deep culture, and it's growing."
McAfoos began trying his hand at making his own sauces several years ago with mixed results. Then, while looking through his wife's recipe box, he found her late father's sauce recipe, a true-to-form Texas style sauce that combined a tomato base with some heat. He tried it on a batch of BBQ chicken "and it was really good." Soon he was making it for Christmas presents. People loved it.
HB's Sauce Company has now added three additional varieties: Cherries and Bourbon (recommended for beef ribs), Apple Rum (for pork chops and ribs), and Pineapple Chipotle. A vinegar-based North Carolina style sauce is in the works and a sixth variation is planned. There are also three rubs.
HB's Sauce Company started with a $2,500 loan from family members. "That's covered the cost of insurance, rental for this place, bottles and all the ingredients," says McAfoos, adding that their first big sale covered a large chunk of that investment.
Profitability appears likely, as the fledgling company has already picked up a distributor. "We're growing faster than we thought we would," says McAfoos. "We're now looking at bringing on an employee to make the sauce for us during the week because the orders we're expecting... will be quite large."
McAfoos gets in to the Kitchen to make a single batch of sauce, or about 60 bottles' worth, once or twice a week for four hours at a time. He uses all natural ingredients; no corn syrup, like the supermarket brands, and bottles on site.
When McAfoos decided to sell his sauces, he was faced with the same dilemma Gilkerson encountered — the absence of a local commercial kitchen for rent. He and his wife spent 18 months looking for a facility and although some restaurants and caterers advertised rental space, he found that none was, in fact, available. Indy's Kitchen made HB's Sauce Company possible, at a rate McAfoos calls "more than reasonable."
Success, of course, will mean that HB's Sauce Company will eventually be able to acquire its own space and move out of Indy's Kitchen. That, says Gilkerson, is part of what's unusual about the incubator business model.
"As people get bigger and they move out, that's a success for us. Our goal is to replace them as they move on to their own facility."
Kris Parmelee's startup, Avec Moi, is focused on catering for events of 100 people or less, plus preparing a dinner to-go every week for folks who are too busy to cook for themselves.
"We publish a changing menu on Thursday," says Parmelee, "you order by Monday at 9 a.m. and then you pick up Tuesday from 3-6 p.m."
Parmelee prepares specials like salmon and potato cakes, frozen French Toast for kids, and apricot cheesecake bars. She has also scored hits with her Turkey Meatloaf, Grandma's Chicken Lasagna and Chicken Enchiladas. She describes Avec Moi's dishes as "comfort food" that she says she wants "people to eat at home."
Embarking on this culinary adventure — going from being a person who loves to cook for family and friends to being a professional chef — was, she says, "a huge leap." But the growing interest in locally produced food, local restaurants, chefs and organic and natural trends encouraged her to think that her time had arrived.
"All these things that are important to me, other people are finally interested in," says Parmelee. "When you look at who is growing in our community, it's small businesses that are locally-owned — the Flying Cupcake, Goose the Market."
Parmelee found Indy's Kitchen before construction had even started, via Google. "When I originally set out to do this, I wanted my own space. But I couldn't get a bank loan. Despite the fact the SBA says they have lots of money to lend, banks are still reluctant to lend it. Through my other job, I'm a member of the National Business Incubation Association. I would see discussions on the listserve about kitchen incubators. So I thought, 'I wonder if we have one here?'"
Indy's Kitchen has enabled Parmelee to put her culinary dream to the test, to see if the market she thinks is out there really exists. So far the answer has been resoundingly affirmative.
"The response has been a little more overwhelming than I thought it would be," she says.
Parmelee logged over 60 hours at Indy's Kitchen in September. She figures she is currently renting space about 25 hours per week. "My invoice for last month was more than rent would have been on a space," she says. "However, I don't have the $60,000 build-out of a kitchen."
Like T.J. McAfoos, Parmelee knows that part of her job involves a cost-benefit analysis of when it makes sense for Avec Moi to grow into a new situation. "This not a place to work 40 hours a week," she says. "At some point, if I find myself at that level of volume, I need to find an alternative."
Keeping it clean
Linda Gilkerson expected Indy's Kitchen to be a success. But, as with McAfoos and Parmelee and their respective enterprises, she's been surprised by how quickly the Kitchen has achieved lift-off.
"Typically, a small business is looking at a year or two years before you're showing any kind of profit. I'm really hopeful that in the next couple of months we can at least pay all the business bills and break even on our own expenses, which is really terrific."
She is also gratified by the sense of community she experiences in the Kitchen.
"We were very deliberate with the decisions that we made that we wanted to have community in here," says Gilkerson. "We're going to help each other as best we can. That has happened much faster than I thought it would."
Linda Gilkerson credits Kris Parmelee and her other tenants with creating a helpful sounding board. Parmelee, in particular, has been "our anchor. It's been wonderful to have her here."
That sense of community has a very practical edge. A kitchen environment demands fail-safe cooperation among all who use it. "People said, 'You really expect people to come in here and cook and clean up after themselves? C'mon, Linda, how naive are you?'" Gilkerson recalls. "But it has worked because you have people in here who are leaving that space for someone else and they're coming back in a day or two and they want the space clean for themselves."
Gilkerson says that the application process for Indy's Kitchen turns out to be largely self-screening. In the first place, anyone who wants to use the Kitchen has to go through the process of receiving a license from the city's Health Department.
To date, Gilkerson figures she has led about 40 tours for prospective renters. "There are a lot of people who come in and they look and they talk and it never goes any farther than that." She says she has yet to get a negative vibe from anyone.
Meanwhile, Indy's Kitchen is alive with the focused energy of food preparation and, on a Tuesday afternoon, the scrumptious aroma of cupcakes from fresh from the oven. It's no surprise Gilkerson has a smile on her face.
"We didn't go into this saying we know everything about this and you're going to do it our way," she says. "That's not our attitude. We're all in this together right now."