WHAT'S COOKING - THE CULINARY DREAMS OF FOOD ENTREPRENEURS by Donny Levit
Garden State Kitchen gives chefs a home in the Valley Arts District
In the fall of 2020, Ilene Moreno was getting set to launch her Colorful Dinner Delivery business, a plant-based delivery service which would get more healthy dishes onto the tables of her Maplewood and South Orange neighbors. Already a successful cookbook author and food photographer, she still had questions involving best practices and food preparation rules in New Jersey. With that in mind, she put in a call to the Maplewood Health Department. And Moreno was given just the answer she needed.
Located in the Valley Arts district of Orange, New Jersey, Garden State Kitchen has become a vital source for food-based entrepreneurs since it opened in November 2018. Not only is it a commercial kitchen that provides affordable rental space for fledgling and established businesses alike, the space serves as an incubator and fount of support services for just about any culinary inquiry imaginable. And in just over three short years since its opening, Garden State Kitchen (GSK for short) has become an indispensable resource for both local and regional food businesses. In addition to the business assistance provided by GSK, Ilene Moreno’s Colorful Dinner Delivery got its start by renting their kitchen facilities. Almost 18 months later, her business is thriving.
Ask founder and owner Kris Ohleth why she put such an extraordinary effort into building GSK and she’ll tell you about how the space has attracted an array of passionate food entrepreneurs. “I love how excited they are – especially the young business owners who we can help mentor and guide and learn together.” Ohleth refers to GSK as a kitchen incubator, where businesses can rent space without long-term contracts, learn the logistical ropes, and overcome the obstacles and “red tape” of the food industry. And she brings decades of project management and leadership skills to this special commercial kitchen.
As the executive director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind (SIOW), Ohleth is a seasoned industry leader. “We’re a nationally focused policy think tank on advancing offshore wind in the U.S.,” she says. “When you work in an industry where you’re building $2 billion infrastructure projects like offshore wind farms, you really have a lot of those business skills built in. I’ve worked a lot in siting and permitting of offshore wind farms. And so it really comported very well to working [on GSK]. It’s just a smaller scale essentially.”
When Ohleth began her search for the incubator site, she not only wanted to find the right building, she also hoped to locate an engaging community for the business. “One of the hardest parts of getting the project off the ground was finding a place where we could call home; a place that has a really distinct sense of community,” she says. “The Valley Arts district certainly does. We also needed a municipality that was interested in working with us as a 24-hour food production space.”
Ohleth – along with her husband Rob Sommo – built a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen rental facility located in a building that once housed an ironworks company. GSK consists of six kitchens: two full-on catering kitchens that include stovetops, griddles, charbroilers, and deep fryers; two baking kitchens with convection ovens and mixers; and two prep kitchens, which are the most economically priced. “They don’t have any cooking equipment, but they’re great for people who are making ice cream, ice pops, or bottling juices, because all they need to do is have that stainless steel table and sink for only $25 an hour. And we have a minimum of a four-hour shift. You’re not able to do that anywhere else,” she says.
“It just runs really smoothly. They have a cleaning staff there, so we aren’t responsible for doing any of the dishes – which is extremely helpful and saves a lot of time,” says Moreno. “It’s basically like walking into my own pristine kitchen space every time, with the added benefit that there are five or six different kitchens. There are often other businesses working at the same time, so there is a sense of community. We’ll sample each other’s food or talk about what’s going on in the food world. It’s your own private space – but at the same time, you are part of a community.”
For many nearby food entrepreneurs, GSK’s opening could not have come at a better time. That’s because Pilotworks, a shared kitchen space in Newark, shuttered just as GSK started renting. “They literally closed overnight. People called me and said, ‘You know, I went to go use the kitchen during my allotted time and there was a lock on the door.’ It was pretty traumatic,” Ohleth says. “It was great timing for us and really unfortunate timing for them. But we were able to be that bridge for a lot of people.”
Although the six kitchen spaces are humming along, GSK’s goal is to provide educational opportunities for food businesses that exist outside its walls as well. Monthly workshops and classes are available online for those near and far.
Maplewood resident Stacy Basko has held myriad food business and chef positions, which makes her a perfect match for working at GSK as the director of community engagement and curriculum development. “I was looking for a commercial kitchen when I first moved out here and started thinking about running a food business. But I could never find one that was close enough,” she says.
When she met Ohleth at a Valley Arts event, they started discussing collaboration. Now Basko runs the highly successful series called “The Formula,” GSK’s signature workshops for growing food businesses. “Stacy has a culinary background but also brings a wide variety of experiences and positions in the world,” says Ohleth. “She’s worked at homeless shelters and marketing for Bank of America and brings a lot of that real life experience to that culinary aspect in the workshop.” Class topics include marketing and social media strategies, business certification, how to break into the farmers-market world, and how to cope with small-business entrepreneurship during the pandemic.
Currently, classes are all remote. “If we have 50 people sign up, we do a presentation format. But if we have five people show up, then we can do an interactive hands-on type of thing,” says Basko. Of course, they’d prefer to be live in their building. “Like every other food business, we’re making the most of it,” she adds.
When the pandemic arrived, Ohleth wanted to ensure that GSK would continue to support the food entrepreneurs. “The food industry was arguably one of the most disrupted of any of the sectors in our region. So many chefs were displaced. Many new opportunities came out of that hardship – and everyone needed the platform. So here we were, really hitting our stride because we’d been open about a year and a half [when the pandemic began],” she says. “We’ve outfitted our front vestibule so delivery drivers can have an easy pickup and really are leaning into that concept. Many other kitchens don’t even allow people to come pick things up there. But we decided we’re really going to lean into this and make it one of our distinguishing qualities.” GSK was featured on “The Today Show” for a segment about their success in providing space for “ghost kitchens” which experienced growth during the pandemic.
Just over three years from its founding, GSK can boast about successful businesses that have since moved on from their comfortable incubator. Maplewood’s Erica Leahy was already a seasoned veteran of the restaurant industry, having worked with star chefs Daniel Boulud, Karen DeMasco, and Tom Colicchio, before wanting to open her own baked goods and savory food business. After making celebration cakes and holiday desserts for local friends and neighbors in Maplewood and South Orange, Leahy set up shop in the early days of GSK to officially start Three Daughters Baking.
After doing business out of GSK for a year, Leahy moved Three Daughters Baking into the General Store Cooperative on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. She now works exclusively out of General Store Cooperative’s kitchen. “I did a couple of the pop-up shops with [Deborah Engel and Amy Howlett, founders of the General Store Cooperative]. When they wanted to take on a permanent location, it seemed like a good next step for me because it wasn’t taking on my own location,” she says. “I could take another baby step in the direction of my business. Getting the retail location was really the next step for us.”
And Ohleth couldn’t be happier for her. “Erica was the model customer. She is bright, articulate, responsible, and thoughtful. Her food is delicious…and we were lucky to have her as one of our first because she’s also super experienced,” she says. “Having Erica’s guidance and mentorship meant as much to us as she said the kitchen meant to her. She’s graduated to her own delicious bakery over at [General Store Cooperative]. Three Daughters is one of our biggest success stories.”
While Ohleth lives in Morris County and is busy advancing offshore wind policy as her day job, spending time at GSK and surrounding herself with food entrepreneurs gives her great joy. “If I’m ever having a bad day, I say to my husband, ‘I’m just going to go work at the kitchen,’” she says. “There’s always somebody there who is doing something awesome.”
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show Under the Influence and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and