Walking into The Cookery, Durham’s first kitchen incubator, is a little like walking into a stainless steel mecca. From ceiling-to-floor, all surfaces gleam in this bright 1,100-square-foot food production facility. Metal prep tables and silver pots shine in natural light that filters through a skylight.
“It took a lot of hard work to get it to this point,” says Nick Hawthorne-Johnson , a licensed contractor, and owner of The Cookery along with wife Rochelle. “The space was in shambles when we first bought it,” he says of the historic building on Chapel Hill Street that once housed the Durham Food Co-op.
While remodeling the new space and navigating the endless red tape of the FDA and state health department regulations wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, the rewards for local food talent have been substantial. The timing was ripe for Durham’s bustling food scene entrepreneurs who, for the first time, have a place where they can prepare their wares without having to invest in the prohibitive costs of buying their own commercial kitchen or deciphering health department regulations.
Commercial kitchens for rent, called “kitchen incubators,” are used by start-ups in their early stages, home-based businesses that need to legalize and grow their operation, or established businesses that need a stable, reliable kitchen that is in compliance with FDA regulations. Typical clients are caterers, personal chefs, bakers, street vendors, and producers of specialty retail and wholesale food.
For Mike Hacker and Becky Cascio, their popular pizza truck, Pie Pushers, would not have been possible without a production facility like The Cookery. “Working in this space has been a total eye opener. Prior to this, we were working in a diner scenario, renting space during the hours when they were closed. It’s a totally different ball game working in a kitchen built for mass production, where everything you need is right at your fingertips”, says Hacker.
”This concept is relatively new to North Carolina”, says Marc Meyer, who has been a health inspector with the Durham County Health Department for 17 years, and worked with Hawthorne-Johnson to get The Cookery up to spec. “It’s very much uncharted territory at this point. So to have someone like Nick, who is so organized and detail oriented at the helm is really confidence building for us.” says Meyer.
The Cookery meets all safety and health inspection requirements, and is equipped with everything a seasoned culinarian needs: a full professional catering kitchen, a baker’s kitchen, four full-size commercial convection ovens, a main stove top with six burners and a large griddle, a 30-quart floor mixer, secure storage space in the 12-foot-by-15-foot walk-in cooler and reach-in freezers, work tables, food truck cleaning and stocking terminals, personal lockers and a variety of other cooking and baking utensils and equipment.
Open 7 days a week, around the clock, anyone can use the space–from culinary professionals to baking enthusiasts wanting to make bulk batches of Christmas cookies. Rental pricing ranges from $20 to $30 an hour, the price getting lower with increased hours.
Yet The Cookery is more than just a facility for rent, it’s also a place where aspiring food entrepreneurs can learn how to bring their business vision to fruition. In Fall of 2011, offerings will include small business planning and training. Successful industry professionals will lead with an aim to help start-ups launch their businesses. “We like to think of ourselves as a stepping stone that helps people gain the skills to kick-start their business,” says Hawthorne-Johnson.
Rochelle Johnson, who has her own design business Row Design Studios , will offer package deals on marketing services, branding, design and public relations to Cookery members.
“A lot of people are afraid to start their own businesses because of all the complicating factors involved. I really want people to learn that it isn’t as complicated as they might think to start their own business, and help make all that information more accessible. We’ve had businesses up and running in a week,” she says, adding:
“It is rewarding to see people set goals for themselves and then work hard to make it happen. Most successful ideas begin with a a casual conversation, and just about everyone has to start at the beginning. I love being a part of the beginning, because it makes me appreciate that business even more as they expand, and there is so much to learn from someone who is determined.”
Hawthorne-Johnson came up with the idea for The Cookery while listening to a friend’s frustration at the lack of commercial kitchen space available for his culinary venture. Prone to having many irons in the fire, Nick also owns Bull City Restoration , which specializes in transforming dilapidated historic homes in downtown Durham into attractive rentals. A licensed acupuncturist, he bought the former Durham Food Co-op structure a few years earlier and envisioned it as a holistic health center. But that dream hadn’t panned out, and the space was languishing. Between his construction skills, years of experience slogging away in kitchens, and many friends in the restaurant business, using the building for a commercial kitchen space seemed a natural fit. Particularly given Rochelle’s business, marketing and advertising skills, starting Durham’s first incubator kitchen almost seemed a no-brainer.
A Durham native, Nick met Rochelle in 2006 when she was a student at UNC’s School of Journalism working towards a degree in Advertising and pursuing a marketing internship at 3 Cups, a high-end coffee, tea and wine merchant in Chapel Hill where Nick was working at the time. Not long after meeting her, he knew he had to ask her out on a date.
Five years later, they are not only husband and wife, but business partners. Rochelle describes herself as being “risk averse” and cautious when it comes to business ventures, while Nick is a fearless risk taker, preferring to jump full force into a project with lightening speed. Four months after the initial idea of The Cookery first percolated, the space was open for business.
“When Nick has an idea, it usually happens,” laughs Rochelle. “I admire Nick’s willingness to think big. He is definitely a dreamer, but then puts those dreams into reality, which I think makes him a distinctive dreamer.”
Between the two of them, things get done, and their mutual respect and adoration is palpable.
“The biggest reward for me in all this is being able to share this venture with Rochelle,” says Johnson, smiling at his wife.
“Aww…,” says Rochelle, reaching for his hand.