Metro, Food, Featured Story

CommonWealth Kitchen Opens Pop-up at The Street

With the warm weather peeking through during the past few weeks, The Street at Chestnut Hill is often a go-to spot for locals to hang out, grab a bite to eat, and make new discoveries. And the newest discovery to be made is The Street’s most recent pop-up, CommonWealth Kitchen. Nestled behind Shake Shack, CommonWealth Kitchen has taken over the pop-up storefront in its first-ever retail venture.

Until May 31, the light-filled pop-up space will showcase some of Boston’s local culinary treasures, many of which are created by small, local businesses that lack a physical storefront. The wide shelves of the CommonWealth Kitchen pop-up will display local sauces, cookies, granola, and many more options that visitors can enjoy between its airy, pastel-colored walls. All of this innovation arises from CommonWealth Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that is one of the country’s biggest food business incubators.

Started in 2009 by founder Jen Faigel, CommonWealth Kitchen has undergone incredible growth over the past eight years. Originally based out of Jamaica Plain in a 2500-square-foot space with only two to three staff members, the facility relocated to Dorchester in 2012 to fill a 15,000-square-foot space with a staff that now includes 15 employees.

Faigel, who used to work in real estate, conceived the idea when she came across an empty warehouse. Hoping to put the space to use, Faigel considered the limits of her experience with affordable housing.  

“We were putting roofs over people’s heads, but we weren’t doing much to change their socioeconomic status,” Faigel said.

After observing other food incubator models that had tried and failed, Faigel decided to give it a shot as well.

Now, almost eight years later, CommonWealth Kitchen is home to over 50 food businesses including food trucks, caterers, and wholesalers. Dedicated to the mission of helping minority groups, 70 percent of the small businesses that CommonWealth Kitchen works with are owned by women and minority racial groups.

“What we are trying to do here is intentionally invest in groups that have been left out of the marketplace and provide the resources and chance that they need to enter it,” Faigel said.

The typical process of developing each business ranges from three to six months. Prior to even approaching CommonWealth Kitchen, the organization requires that each business have a license, permit, and insurance, and to display its full dedication and intent on following through with this venture. Once businesses are accepted, CommonWealth Kitchen employees emphasize their role as a helping hand, widely encouraging the business owners to develop their own problem-solving skills.

“We help them with anything like label design, to market place entry, or even with community reception. The main focus here though, is that it is all collaborative work,” said Pat Gray, senior advisor for strategy and development.

Businesses that are a part of CommonWealth Kitchen all operate on different schedules. Some cook in the Dorchester facility every day, while others may only appear once a week—all depending on the needs of its company. When not in the kitchen, many business owners are out- networking and talking to retailers and wholesalers, trying to further their footing in the marketplace. Due to the differing scale of each company, with some businesses operating in 80 stores while others are in 200, the businesses have varying levels of experience. This difference offers an unique opportunity for collaborative work between the businesses themselves, not just with CommonWealth Kitchen.

When looking ahead for the future, Faigel hopes to create a model for other communities seeking to set up food incubators and to further the collaborative work and integration of services that the CommonWealth Kitchen operates on. Gray explained that CommonWealth Kitchen has involved lots of “ trial and error,” which has ultimately bred a community of “problem solvers,” and an organization where those involved are “always looking to be better and can recognize everyone’s unique contribution”

Specifically, the organization is working on getting some of its shelf products into local universities within the next few months. It has already made some headway with Harvard and Northeastern.

“College students love local products these days,” Faigel said. “They would be the perfect consumer base that many of our businesses are trying to extend out to.”

All the items stocked are made in the Dorchester facility. But instead of each business individually selling its product through the storefront, they are bought by the organization, and then sold through the pop-up.

And so far, the shelves offer a variety of local options to explore. During the warm weeks to come the small-batch ice cream from Little G’s will certainly fly out of the shop, and honey-sweetened, homemade marshmallows from Apotheker’s Kitchen will satiate anyone’s sweet tooth.

In addition to the goods on the shelves, the store will have a rotating schedule of two food trucks cooking in-house, so fresh daily options will be available as well. The month of April will feature the food truck Jamaica Mi Hungry, while May will feature The Dining Car.

The pop-up will also feature special events during its stay in The Street, including an upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration that will offer succulent pork tacos from The Dining Car.

And even though May hearkens the end of CommonWealth Kitchen’s stay on The Street, Fiagel and Gray look at the departure with resolute optimism.

“Hey who knows,” chuckled Fiagel. “Best-case scenario this could become a permanent space for us.”

Featured Image by Simran Brar / Heights Staff

April 27, 2017