One doesn’t expect many people to be at Saint Michael’s Lutheran Church at 10:00 AM on an overcast Friday morning, but the striking yet simple brick church on Cumberland Street in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood is buzzing with activity. Inside is Pastor Marjorie Neal, at the center of all that happens at Saint Michael’s. Out of the church’s many active social programs, one of the most acclaimed ventures is its Community Kitchen. Active since 2011, the Community Kitchen is operated by Greensgrow Farms, located just down the street from the church. Greensgrow worked with Saint Michael’s in order to bring the church’s large commercial kitchen through a series of renovations and certifications to make it usable for licensed food operations. Now Greensgrow uses the kitchen for a variety of purposes: as a teaching and learning center; to create their famous pestos and eggplant dips; and to lease hourly to food entrepreneurs who use the space for a variety of purposes.
An interview with kitchen manager Bradford Bucknum, of Greensgrow Farms, reveals more of the nuts and bolts behind this innovative partnership. The kitchen space was upgraded, with support from foundation grants, to include a convection oven, industrial mixers, cooling racks, mixing bowls, a griddle, and more for food businesses looking for this type of commercial-quality equipment. Other items available for communal use include food processors, hand mixers, and kitchen necessities like foil, olive oil, and plastic wrap. Greensgrow and Saint Michael’s also worked together to create a “clean room” sterilized space for wholesale canning and pickling. As Bucknum explains, Greensgrow now leases space from the church and pays a quarterly fee to cover utilities and rental costs.
As both Bucknum and Reverend Neal point out, one of the main reasons that the Community Kitchen has been such a success is Bucknum’s role as the kitchen manager on site. He does all of the scheduling and cleaning of the space, ensuring that church staff doesn’t have to take on that responsibility. Bucknum brings his experience in the restaurant industry to the position and manages issues that arise with cleanliness, security, access, and any conflicts between lessees. Tenants are charged an hourly rate, but Greensgrow offers reduced rates during off-peak seasons and occasionally negotiates a flat fee for long-term users. Before accepting a new business, Greensgrow requires them to fill out an application, procure liability insurance, have a Food Handler’s license and a business license, and sign a handbook of policies. Each of these measures ensures that Greensgrow and Saint Michael’s are legally protected.
Two years into the partnership, the kitchen is primarily funded by grants, and income varies seasonally, with winter as the slowest time. The focus of the rental program is not to host two to three entrepreneurs for long periods of time, but rather to create a safe space for over fifteen tenants. For example, when asked about the name Community Kitchen, Reverend Neal explains, “anyone who wants to start his or her own small food business can do it at our licensed kitchen. They stay for about six months or more and, in that time, learn how to survive in the culinary industry in a safe space with cheap rent.” She reflects for a moment on an example, saying, “We had a guy here who made delicious cookies. Fortunately, he was able to learn here that his model wasn’t working for him, and now he’s gone back to take a business course. Our program is a success either way. Even if you don’t end up starting your food business, you learn something.”
The Community Kitchen does more than provide affordable rental space for budding chefs. Greensgrow also opens up the kitchen to anyone with food stamp benefits, so that, according to Reverend Neal, “people can come here and get a big bag of food for $4.00.” Greensgrow ensures that food recipients are familiar with all the vegetables they receive by hosting a chef on the premises to lead classes where participants are taught how to prepare items in their bags. At the end of the sessions, attendees receive recipes so that they can replicate what they learned at home.
Since the demand for spaces like the Community Kitchen at Saint Michael’s is high, this space-sharing partnership is all the more important. A business advisor for the Center for Culinary Enterprise, one of the few shared-kitchen spaces in the city, points out that shared kitchens are “an affordable way [for people to] launch a business without getting in too deep financially.” By opening its doors to the Community Kitchen, Saint Michael’s Lutheran Church demonstrates its commitment to ministries that transform lives instead of merely providing services. Initiatives like the Community Kitchen facilitate sustainable economic development in communities with limited access to economic resources by lowering business entry barriers such as costs. They also offer opportunities for existing local food entrepreneurs to develop new techniques and products that keep food businesses relevant or allow expansion. Today, Saint Michael’s acts as a model and information source for other sacred places looking to institute similar programs in their buildings. In Reverend Neal’s words, “Here at St. Michael’s, we believe that the church is not a museum, but rather a community church, where all parts of our building are used to build relationships and skills among people.”