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Union Kitchen's Spin-Off Success Stories

2014 could very well be the year of the food startup. A number of DC chefs and small business owners are planning to make the move from concept to storefront next year. But, that wouldn't have happened without some hard work and sweat, says Meredith Tomason, the founder of a new bakery, RareSweets.

On top of the city's expensive lease rates, real estate negotiations can be tricky, and there are upfront building costs. "Finding the right space for our product has been difficult," Tomason says. "Rents can be ridiculous in some places, and we want the right mix — something financially viable and where people will frequent."

Right now, RareSweets is eyeing a move to downtown DC by next fall. In the meantime, Tomason is finalizing a lease deal and baking out of Union Kitchen, a shared-commercial kitchen space.

Both day and night, this 7,300 square foot warehouse located a few blocks north of Union Station, is teeming with activity from dozens of food startups, like RareSweets. Inside Union Kitchen, members can cook, store food, and make use of an office space to grow their small business.

While many chefs and owners are just starting at Union Kitchen (the space opened about a year ago) a few are making what they say is the next big leap — moving from Union Kitchen to brick-and-mortar storefronts.

Curbside Cupcakes most recently made the move with the opening of Curbside Cafe. They still operate their pink fleet of cupcake trucks, but in October they added a storefront with their Capitol Hill location. The space has a kitchen and coffee bar, as well as expanded food options, like sandwiches and soup.

TaKorean also works out of Union Kitchen and will open a retail location in 2014. The Union Kitchen space helps supply their current operation of food trucks, plus they have some counter space at Union Market. Founder, Mike Lenard, says the plan is to open a new restaurant on the Southeast Waterfront this summer. He hopes to grow the business by taking advantage of the fast-casual dining concept that is widely popular in DC.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill's Barracks Row, District Doughnuts is starting construction for an April opening. Greg Meena and his co-owner and chef, Christine Schaefer, have been using Union Kitchen for the last sixth months, and they are in the process of converting an old barbershop into a kitchen and retail space for their gourmet doughnuts. For the last two years, the business has delivered doughnuts door-to-door. They've also introduced flavors like caramel apple strudel and pumpkin spice at "pop-up shop" events.

"It hasn't been easy," Meena says. "If you are an entrepreneur, like me, have no experience being a pastry chef, and have partners that are under the age of 26, you're going to have to prove to a lot of people that you can make it."

While for some "making it" might mean they keys to a new shop, there's also important lessons to be learned along the way, says Tomason. "I decided to move here from New York to DC because the food industry is growing, and I wanted to be part of the action here," Tomason says. "But, I've also learned to be patient and take a lot of deep breaths. It's easy for small businesses to see the flashing lights and not think wholeheartedly about if this is the right decision. It's important to look at everything that's being presented to make sure this is the right decision."
—Tim Ebner
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Curbside Cafe [Photo: Facebook]