Demand to join Sherman Park's food business incubator is surging
UpStart Kitchen in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood provides support to budding low and moderate-income food entrepreneurs. It’s got a licensed kitchen space, equipment and access to mentors who’ve already found success in starting up food trucks, shops or restaurants.
The 1,300 square feet of shared kitchen space, which is available for rent 24/7, opened in June 2020 right as the pandemic began. It was uncertain times in the restaurant industry.
“And we've pivoted [during the pandemic] and started doing community meals programs for people who are homebound and food insecure,” says Ries. “And we've done over 100,000 meals already. And we're continuing to do meals, as you know, for people in need.”
Ries says the free meals program started on “a wing and a prayer,” relying on charitable contributions. Then last year, the kitchen got a $200,000 community block grant from the city. He says that was helpful, but there’s a lot of need, and since it costs them $10 to produce a meal, the money didn't last that long.
“That's what I'm juggling right now is to try to make sure that we don't run out of money so that we can continue the meals program, at least at a modest level, based on the available funding for it,” Ries says.
UpStart took up the community meals program from Caitlin Cullen of the now-shuttered Tandem Restaurant, which used to be a few miles down the road on Fond du Lac Avenue in Lindsay Heights.
It’s a win-win, the program helps the community and then the kitchen can hire fledgling entrepreneurs to make meals. Entrepreneurs like Andren Jett and Shana Gray of Gray-Jett Café on the northwest side.
Collaborating with Jett and Gray means getting vegan delicacies out to the public.
“We have a street taco, avocado, lemons and we have a variety of different salsas,” describes Jett of a meal to-go box they're preparing at UpStart. “And the meat is made out of lentils, black beans, some chickpeas and mushrooms to give it more or less the ground beef taste."
Jett and Gray are especially proud of their vegan burgers, vegan spicy honey chicken sandwiches and buddha bowls.
“Our goal is to bring, especially like inner cities in certain communities — they’re undervalued when it comes to healthy food, our thing is to put restaurants in certain areas in this country, to make sure everyone's allowed and blessed with nutrition and have access to nutrition,” explains Jett.
WUWM first reported on UpStart in August 2019, when Parklawn Assembly of God and PRISM publicized the effort. Organizers put a call-out to chefs and caterers with dreams of beginning or expanding their food businesses.
The big draws include the fact that people can rent a licensed kitchen space, and also get help with things like licensing, marketing, budgeting and financing, not to mention have access a boatload of cool kitchen gear.
Michael Feker is a chef and restaurateur of Il MITO Trattoria e Enoteca. He oversees the meals program and says it's "like being a kid in a candy shop" when he's in the kitchen.
“We have large smokers, we have huge ovens and convection ovens that we can do large batch cooking, but at the same time, you can do small batch cooking so our entrepreneurs are not forced to cook a lot of food if they don't have the clientele for it,” Feker explains. “Like this mixer. This is an 80-gallon mixer. And this is very, very rare in regular kitchens unless you have a bakery.”
Tomira White runs Delicious Bites. It’s grab-and-go wraps, salads and baked goods. She’s opening a retail location on North Avenue in Wauwatosa. White has rented a space in UpStart since it opened and will continue to do so.
“Our [new Wauwatosa] space is retail so there is not a full kitchen. So, we will still rely on UpStart to bake especially when we have this baby here that makes 480 cookies in 10 minutes like that's liquid gold," she explains.
White says that oven “will definitely help for production with the new space because we're gonna need it.”
White says her business is all about a health mix — cookies but also salad and wraps. “Gotta have balance,” she says.
Ries of PRISM says there are four types of entrepreneurs at UpStart: caterers, food producers, food truck operators and packagers. Some are expanding in ways you’d expect: opening cafes and food trucks and also catering events. Others are getting creative, selling their pound cakes to restaurants or packaging their potato chips there after a big break contract with the Fiserv Forum.
Ries says there are 310 people currently on the waiting list to get spaces.