Fairgrounds commercial kitchen rebranded with hopes of reaching more large users

Karen Kinder, founder of boutique catering service Roux de Loo, uses the kitchen at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Wednesday, March 16, 2016.

The pastel pink chef smock worn Wednesday by Karen Kinder, founder of boutique catering service Roux de Loo Gourmet, stood out against the white walls and stainless steel utensils of the commercial kitchen at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

It did, however, complement the pink bread dough she was preparing and the purple icing waiting to top the freshly made cookies she pulled from a large oven. All the pastel treats were to be served at a baby shower Kinder would cater.

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For more information on Culinary Commons, call Douglas County K-State Research and Extension agent Susan Johnson at 785-843-7058 or visit culinarycommons.org.

Kinder moved a year ago to Lawrence from southern California, where the one-time paralegal started a catering business after attending Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. She soon went about establishing herself locally, teaching classes at Sweet! in downtown Lawrence and starting her catering business. One obstacle to the latter venture and her plan to make her goods available at farmers markets this year was finding a commercial kitchen where she could prepare larger quantities of food and be licensed by the Kansas Department of Agriculture to market them.

“I looked into renting restaurant kitchens, one in McLouth and the other in Oskaloosa, but they were only available on Sundays or late at night,” Kinder said. “The other option would be building my own commercial kitchen. That would be pretty costly.”

The solution, as it has been for other food entrepreneurs, was the commercial kitchen available for rent at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Known as the Incubator Kitchen since its opening in 2005, the facility just this month was rebranded as the Culinary Commons.

“The name really tells what it is,” said Susan Johnson, county family and consumer sciences agent with Douglas County’s K-State Research and Extension. “It is producing a culinary experience and is a common asset to the community.”

The rebranding effort includes a new logo and the culinarycommons.org website. The site includes the kitchen’s policies, rates, equipment and a list of other resources available to food entrepreneurs.

The rebranding was a joint effort of the Douglas County Food Policy Council and Douglas County Extension, said Helen Schnoes, Douglas County food systems coordinator.

“With the rebranding, we’re looking to reach larger users who didn’t know they had this in their backyard over at the fairgrounds,” she said.

Culinary Commons is part of a larger effort to make more locally produced food available to county consumers both for health benefits and the profit of producers and processors, Schnoes said. Other elements include the Common Ground Community Garden program in Lawrence, the Market Match program that allows a dollar-for-dollar match of food stamps at farmers’ markets and the urban agriculture policy changes the Lawrence City Commission will soon consider, Schnoes said.

Although it is hoped the rebranding will increase awareness of the kitchen, much of its marketing will continue to be through word-of-mouth among those in the local network of food producers and talented cooks and chefs, Johnson said.

She was the chairwoman for a committee that looked into food preparation facilities at the fairgrounds following a fire that destroyed a 4-H food stand in the early 2000s, Johnson said. The committee wanted a multipurpose facility and agreed the kitchen in Building 21 on the fairgrounds was large enough for a commercial kitchen that would accommodate multiple uses. The idea of a commercial kitchen at that site entered her mind before the fire, she said.

“In the past, I recognized from tours and walk-throughs that the kitchen would sit idle,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to do it. There was no reason not to put commercial equipment in there so it would be used. It was a gold mine out there waiting to happen.

“There’s been a lot of use from the beginning, but the momentum is really picking up now with the demand for locally produced food. It’s been great to help with that.”

The Douglas County Fair Board and the County Commission embraced the concept and partnered in the creation of the commercial kitchen. The insurance payments from the fire were used to purchase the needed equipment, and the county paid for a new electrical system and other structural upgrades, Johnson said.

After a consultation with a Kansas Department of Agriculture representative, the kitchen was equipped with commercial standard ovens, a stove, dish washer, mixer, tilting kettle, five stainless steel work tables, two refrigerators a freezer and an assortment of “small ware,” Johnson said.

Johnson is the contact person for those wanting to rent the kitchen. After Johnson gives them a tour, the next step for entrepreneurs is to meet with a state agricultural department representative about their plans.

“The kitchen isn’t licensed,” Johnson said. “It’s the food entrepreneur and the food production process that are licensed. They get a license to use the space.

“Food inspectors can walk in at any time, just like at a restaurant. It’s on the food inspectors’ schedule.”

Food safety is a big concern and an issue that the kitchen’s design and equipment help address, Johnson said.

“It is being able to have everything at your fingertips,” she said. “When you understand critical elements of food safety, this facility works very well. It allows you to produce the food in a very organized and safe manner.”

The incubator kitchen has hatched successful ventures that marketed products online, on store shelves or at farmers markets. Notable successes include the Comfrey & Clementines skin products Angela McGuire still makes at the fairgrounds and the Hippie Chow granola mix that Valerie Jennings traveled from Johnson County to produce before she sold the brand to a larger company, Johnson said.

“It really is an economic development asset because there is such an interest in locally produced food,” she said. “When we can help jump-start that, it is a win-win.”

The kitchen’s use is not limited to food entrepreneurs or caterers. Johnson said it was in demand during “food preservation season” for those who want to can produce from their gardens or orchards or make jams and jellies. It’s also been rented for families preparing for large gatherings.

At $25 for eight hours and $50 for 17 hours, rental fees are reasonable enough for the different uses, Johnson said.

Johnson is developing a wish list of items that could improve Culinary Commons.

“We really hope as this moves forward, we can purchase more smaller ware that might be needed,” she said. “There’s also a demand from entrepreneurs who would like the storage a lot of incubator kitchens have. We would like to have a cooler where products can be stored overnight or for a couple of days.”