Commissary kitchens are the unsung heroes of the culinary world. They allow for shared use of equipment, limited overhead costs, and most importantly space. Largely hidden behind the scenes, they play a pivotal role in shaping the success of a small business and ensuring the health, safety, and quality of food products. “Missoula’s food scene continues to grow, but there hasn’t been an increase in commercial kitchens to support the growth,” explained Tiffany Perkins-Cole, chef, founder, and CEO of Plant Perks, a plant-based food brand. With the gap between businesses in need of space and available kitchens widening, two unique solutions have materialized.
It was unfortunate news when Missoula Economic Partnership learned that Moonlight Kitchens, one of Missoula’s existing commissary kitchens, announced they would be shutting down in 2023, displacing 16 microbusinesses. Spaces like this are critical to small business owners like Kristen Revier, the owner of Orange Eyed Owl Wild Snacks (OEO). “Starting a small food business can be daunting after the initial excitement of great ideas and the success at the farmer’s market wears off,” Kristen explained. “Navigating the logistics and requirements by the state and local health department can be overwhelming.”
Seeing the growing void, MEP’s Business Development Director Christine Littig began to look for opportunities to connect resources to fill the gap. During a routine business retention and expansion meeting with Consumer Direct Care Network (CDCN) MEP learned the company had an unused kitchen in the building that closed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After further discussion, CDCN indicated they would be interested in allowing the space to be used as a commissary kitchen in support of Missoula’s food ecosystem.
CDCN did not, however, have the resources to operate the kitchen. Christine, who has deep roots in Missoula’s food scene, looked to her connection with Kristen and OEO. “The most difficult part of the opportunity was securing an entrepreneur with the skill sets (and I do mean sets) needed to run a commissary kitchen, provide delicious meals for CDCN, and create the desired outcome.” said Christine. “We find similar challenges at MEP when considering a manufacturing incubator space. Manufacturers exist in our community, but who amongst these operations has time, space, and capacity to become the operator of the incubator?”
During OEO’s early growth, Kristen developed a relationship with Heath Carey of Nourishing Cultures Kombucha who offered space in his kitchen. He also offered Kristen mentorship as she navigated things like insurance, rent, and licensing. “His willingness to support my efforts assisted my ability to be ready for this opportunity when it presented itself. I want to offer the same thing to others like me,” Kristen said.
Now in September 2023, Kitchen in the Wild, one of Missoula’s newest commissary kitchens is emerging. Kristen leased the space at CDCN and will operate as chef and manager of the commissary kitchen. CDCN’s kitchen went from unused space to revenue (and food!) generating. As part of the agreement, Kristen will provide breakfasts and lunches for staff. The partnership is a great example of a business thinking nontraditionally about how they use extra space. “It is exciting to think that a small affordable kitchen is available by way of a unique community partnership with the commitment to affordable space and an intention of paying it forward,” Christine explained. “I am appreciative of CDCN’s intention here. I am also hopeful that this outcome inspires other property owners and businesses to reconsider how they are using their space. What other unique partnerships are possible? What does it look like to reconfigure the use of office space and use it to benefit the community?”
Plant Perks is also entering the commissary kitchen game. They recently moved its production facility to Southern California but is keeping their research and development here in their Missoula kitchen. R&D requires infrequent use of their
facility, so they have also opened their kitchen to local food entrepreneurs and are adding on business advising as part of the package, if desired. “Many of the food brands I’ve spoken with are using other businesses’ kitchens, which means they are only able to use the space late at night or very early in the morning, which isn’t ideal for everyone,” Tiffany Perkins-Cole said. “Knowing firsthand how cumbersome it is to start and scale a food business, I wanted to be able to give back to the community and make food entrepreneurs’ lives a bit easier.”
At 2200 square feet, the Plant Perks kitchen offers more space than Kitchen in the Wild, larger equipment, bottling, and labeling. “We are targeting anyone who has their hands in food,” she explained. “This could be someone who only sells at the farmer’s market, a catering company, or any food business looking to take their brand to the next level! My company, Plant Perks, was able to scale from selling in 100 stores to over 3,000 in this space, so the potential for growth is quite large!”
Filling the void of commissary kitchens in Missoula has been a far-reaching endeavor across the community. “I have been lucky enough to have friends like Christine Littig who have worked at amazing organizations like the Missoula Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and MEP, and Morgan Slemberger at W.E.L.L. Women’s Business Center. I have relationships with many farmers and producers from working so many markets throughout Western Montana,” Kristen said. “I have relationships with Abundant MT, CFAC, or AERO who offer free listings, workshops, and access to other important information. Knowing where to turn and who to ask can feel overwhelming. I am looking forward to being another resource who provides resources, and a kitchen that is affordable for the first stage of business lift off from a market presence.”
Stay tuned for more information about Kitchen in the Wild.
See information about Plant Perks’ Commissary Kitchen here: https://missoulakitchen.com/