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What’s Cooking? How Shared Kitchens Can Boost Local Entrepreneurship

Food-related businesses are especially accessible for aspiring entrepreneurs, but there aren’t nearly enough shared-use food facilities. Supporting and promoting them is an opportunity for local governments.

A shared work space in Washington, D.C.’s Union Kitchen.
A shared work space in Washington, D.C.’s Union Kitchen. While more than 600 shared kitchens exist across the country, many larger cities lack them. (U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy)
As an entrepreneur who started a salsa business based on a family recipe during the COVID-19 pandemic, I depend on a shared kitchen for my business. I could never have started it without access to one, and that’s true for countless entrepreneurs. Yet there is a shortage of shared food facilities nationwide. Addressing that need is vital to new-business growth, and local governments have a major role to play.

The reason shared food facilities are so important is that food-related businesses are among the most accessible for aspiring entrepreneurs. The beauty of food is that it reflects culture and heritage, and everyone has culture and heritage to bring to the table.

I had never imagined that my business would be based on a recipe that had been sitting in my mother’s kitchen, but when the pandemic ended my job I turned to the recipe box. My family has moved over decades from Mexico to Alaska to New Mexico, and our salsa recipe reflects all of that heritage, with a unique blend of related flavors.

Fortunately, I live in Albuquerque, where there are several shared kitchens, and I was able to access one at an affordable rate. But the waiting list now for access to a shared kitchen in Albuquerque can be as long as 18 months. That’s a bottleneck to entrepreneurship. Advancing entrepreneurship is crucial, because small businesses create most new jobs in America.

And many Americans are interested in starting their own businesses. A survey conducted recently for Right to Start, a national nonprofit championing entrepreneurship as a civic priority, found that 43 percent of American voters have thought about starting a new business but only half have tried. Voters of color are especially entrepreneurial-minded: 54 percent of Black voters and 50 percent of Hispanic voters say they have thought about starting a business, compared to 40 percent of white voters.

Nationally, as of 2019 there were just over 600 shared-use food facilities across the country, according to a kitchen incubator industry survey. That may sound like a lot, but only a little more than half of those facilities were in the urban areas where nearly 128 million Americans live. That means there was not even one shared kitchen in many of the 780 U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more. On top of that, 75 percent of shared kitchens had less than 30 users, and 52 percent could accommodate only four at a time.

Yet shared kitchens, as a community priority, are not especially expensive. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed by the industry had operating budgets of less than $100,000. They are an asset that most communities can afford to prioritize, especially given their potential for rejuvenating downtown retail districts, local economies and tax bases. When operators of shared food facilities were asked why users had left their facilities, 42 percent cited moving to a brick-and-mortar location. That's a win for any community looking to fill vacant storefronts.

So what can cities do to prioritize shared food facilities?

First, assess the landscape. Where are the nearest shared food facilities and how many are there? What proportion of the population and what parts of the community do they serve? Do they have waiting lists and, if so, how long? Is the rent affordable to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Second, encourage the growth of shared food facilities. They can be either for-profit (as were 52 percent of those surveyed) or nonprofit, so there are two vibrant avenues to pursue. Nonprofit facilities can be advanced by philanthropic interests; for-profit ones may respond best to tax incentives. In both cases, zoning changes may be needed to encourage the facilities to open in prioritized locations.

Third, promote shared food facilities as a civic asset. Massachusetts, for instance, lists the state’s 20 shared-use kitchen spaces, providing links to their websites and contact information. The more the facilities are promoted, the better known they will be to aspiring entrepreneurs.

At a time when so many Americans are interested in starting businesses and U.S. job growth depends on it, it’s vital that we prioritize shared food facilities. Every community should offer easy access to them and benefit economically from a taste of its own culture and heritage.

Edgar Solis is the founder and CEO of Alma’s Salsa and an advocate for Right to Start in New Mexico.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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