Cooking up success: Commercial kitchens that fought through pandemic and finding business is on upswing

Meredith Chartier. (Bellamy Kitchen)

When the pandemic shook up the food and beverage industry, commercial kitchens in New Jersey held on.

In fact, after several years of adjusting, adapting and sometimes benefiting from the way the pandemic altered dining — a reality some commercial kitchens faced just years or merely months after launching — these businesses are enjoying a new level of relevance in today’s market.

One of the proprietors of those commercial kitchens is Bellamy Kitchen‘s Meredith Chartier. She reports that, since the later part of 2022, it’s welcomed in an additional one or two new tenants each month that are eager to find their footing in the greater Jersey City market.

Throughout much of the pandemic, Chartier said caterers, farmer’s market vendors, food trucks, meal kit companies, private chefs and other food businesses turned to commercial kitchens for flexible, off-site arrangements to prepare products. That meant operations such as hers had to sometimes double their shared kitchen capacity.

A few years prior, the concept of a kitchen operation where no diners showed up, everyone shared resources and found different ways to serve their customers — that was all foreign. Chartier experienced a major need for education in Bellamy Kitchen’s model when it first opened in November 2018.

“People would come in to tour the space and didn’t understand it was shared; they thought they’d have their own dedicated space,” Chartier said. “Not only was it a concept that food businesses didn’t fully understand — builders, contractors and those in (governmental) departments and health inspectors weren’t all familiar with the concept.”

Kris Ohleth. (File photo)

Kris Ohleth, owner of Orange-based Garden State Kitchen, another commercial kitchen operation that launched at the same time as Bellamy Kitchen, said it helped when commercial kitchens such as hers — after some lessons learned — honed their business model.

“We’ve evolved into a really plug-and-play environment, where people don’t need to worry about being anything but a baker or cook — instead of worrying about managing a facility and everything that goes into that,” Ohleth said. “That comes out of recognizing that food entrepreneurs are sometimes working full-time jobs in addition to their startup and don’t have the capacity or desire to run a kitchen.”

The advantages are the same as they’ve always been for these companies’ clients: They’re paying for time they use in the kitchen and subtracting the overhead and the long lease agreement on a physical location. It’s a low-risk entry point for food & beverage entrepreneurs.

Commercial kitchen owners, including Ohleth, tend to offer themselves up as resources. As such, they act as consultants on marketing or other business necessities. As further upside, Ohleth added that commercial kitchen members learn from the other entrepreneurs they share a kitchen with.

“And our goal is really to graduate folks out of the kitchen,” she said. “After 12 to 18 months, businesses will usually either find this type of business isn’t for them or move into a long-term space they can call their own. There’s usually a lot of fluidity in customers.”

Those customers dealt with a challenging environment during the pandemic, when working from home and the pause on in-person dining had more people getting more familiar with their own kitchens. Issues still remain, Ohleth said, especially the continued skyrocketing of food prices, costs of staffing going up and more competition than ever from larger food conglomerates.

One trend that worked in favor of commercial kitchens was the surge in activity on food delivery apps. That’s not challenge-free, however. Ohleth points to the costs and fees associated with dealing with these delivery services and competing with large companies on their algorithms.

The new comfort with food delivered straight to homes gave rise to the so-called “ghost kitchen” businesses, often characterized by food sold on a delivery basis under a different branding than the storefront it’s sold from. There are varying levels of satisfaction with these delivery-only clients at commercial kitchens.

“For us, it makes sense, because we’ve essentially always operated in that way,” Ohleth said. “We’re not the ones putting ourselves out there in the spotlight. We’re a (behind-the-scenes) platform to raise up our members.”

From Chartier’s perspective, a lot more awareness of their business model has accompanied the rise of the ghost kitchen. But the concept isn’t popular with everyone, she admits. And she understands ordering from a business positioned as a taco concept and having food arrive from a pizzeria is going to raise some eyebrows.

Chartier said she makes every effort to be transparent about the food made in her space. She does limit the amount of ghost kitchen businesses in Bellamy Kitchen, mostly because these businesses require an all-day scheduling that could otherwise be suited to several clients. Along with that, there tends to be interest in the collaborative environment shared kitchens offer.

“So, in the last year, I really started directing those traditional ghost kitchen models (elsewhere),” Chartier said. “The setup (here) doesn’t always work for those businesses.”

Djenaba Johnson-Jones. (File photo)

Djenaba Johnson-Jones, founder and CEO of Hudson Kitchen in Kearny, did have a lot of businesses in her commercial kitchen refocus on direct-to-consumer and e-commerce approaches during the pandemic. But she doesn’t allow delivery-only food businesses to work out of her facility at all.

She’s fine with the ghost kitchen concept. That just isn’t what Hudson Kitchen does.

What it’s already doing, which includes helping businesses cooking up products in their shared kitchen find their way to grocery store shelves … well, it works.

And when what it’s doing works, the local economy benefits, too.

“Since our late 2019 launch, we worked with more than 50 food businesses that have come through the facility,” Johnson-Jones said. “In our first two years, our members did $9 million in collective revenue and we created 58 jobs. That’s something we’re really proud of.”

Woman at work

Across the ownership of Hudson Kitchen, Garden State Kitchen and Bellamy Kitchen, you might note a trend: They’re all run by professional women.

Regardless, if you ask Bellamy Kitchen’s Meredith Chartier, she’ll tell you gender is perceived a certain way in the food & beverage industry.

“There’s an overall lack of respect for women, especially those under a certain age,” she said. “It’s unfortunate … because I think any person of authority in a field should warrant respect.”

After spending many years running a meal prep company, Chartier learned the ins and outs and “pain points” of shared kitchens. So, she had a solid grasp on how to direct her husband, a developer, when building out Bellamy Kitchen’s space.

“But he’d receive a lot of pushback on the way things were placed, and comments like, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that’s not how things work in a restaurant,’” she said. “But it wasn’t a restaurant, and my husband told them she’s worked in spaces like this — she knows where the lighting, security systems and other things should be.

“Even to this day, although I run my business independent of my husband, men will ask what my husband’s availability is when there’s talk of discussing pricing for something in the kitchen.”

Chartier said she’s accustomed to sideways glances when she tells people she doesn’t need to hire someone (or, for that matter, a man) to clean out the grease traps and make other kitchen repairs. She can do it herself, she said.

She’s hoping that mindset is on its way out. But she’s not sure it is.

“It’s an old-fashioned way of thinking,” she said. “However, it’s maybe not as old-fashioned as I thought it was, because I’m surprised to find that people in their 30s sometimes still think that way.”