Colleton County to open a commercial kitchen for food makers

Colleton County Commercial Kitchen program manager Chad Carter explains what type of ovens are going into the production baking kitchen at the new facility in Walterboro.

To make a springtime jelly that cozies up to roast lamb, all Sherri Best needs are sprigs of rosemary and mint from her garden and a few scoops of sugar. But if she wants to sell the condiment to friends and neighbors, she needs a kitchen certified by the state as having the proper wall paint, sinks, counters and window screens, among other items stipulated by South Carolina law.

“I was using the kitchen at Shoney’s,” says Best, who lives in Walterboro. “But that came to a halt in 2013.”

Best worked out a compromise with the Department of Health and Environmental Control that gave her 15 days to produce herbal vinegars in a back corner of her home kitchen, in the spot where she keeps her deep freezer. She swiftly sold out that run at the Colleton Farmers Market. “Because of shelf life, I made just enough for my customers,” Best explains.

Now, though, a massive shared commercial kitchen is on the brink of opening in a former downtown supermarket. The building has been physcially joined to the county museum that sponsors the twice-weekly market, so Best and fellow vendors have been able to keep an eye on the $1 million facility’s progress.

“Oh my goodness, I’ve been waiting on this,” Best says. “I have so many ideas. I want to step up and do vinaigrettes and finishing sauce and herb jelly.”

Food artisans and food truck operators across the state have devised a slew of creative arrangements to keep their products legal. Like Best, they cook in restaurants after hours, or rent space from catering companies. In Charleston, Duvall Catering’s commissary kitchen hosts a dozen local manufacturers, including Mrs. Sassard’s. But none of those venues function as true kitchen incubators, providing clients with the guidance they need for their businesses to flourish.

By contrast, as the first government-supported shared kitchen in South Carolina, the Colleton Commercial Kitchen is aiming to invigorate the Lowcountry economy by nurturing food entrepreneurs and creating a new destination for culinary tourists.

“South Carolina has just sort of put its toe into food manufacturing,” says Gloria Kellerhals, co-chair of a group planning to open a publicly funded shared kitchen in Chester later this year. “There’s a lot of money to be made in good food.”

The connection between money and food is well-established: Americans annually spend more than $1 billion on food. And a study commissioned last year by the Specialty Food Association showed one in four food dollars is spent on “distinctive foods, often made by small or local manufacturers,” such as oils, baked goods, ice cream and salty snacks.

Yet it’s still not entirely clear whether incubators reliably bridge food producers and money. “Little data exist on the performance and impact of incubators, in part because most do not collect any,” the authors of a 2013 industry survey wrote. “In addition, the large majority of facilities are very new.” According to the report, issued by a Philadelphia consulting firm, most of the nation’s 135 kitchen incubators were launched in the five years leading up to the study. (A few prominent incubators that got an earlier start have since folded.)

Despite a mixed record of success, more than half of kitchen incubators operate as for-profit enterprises. That’s the model at DER Kitchen, which became the state’s first shared commercial kitchen when it opened three years ago in Columbia. “I owned a building and had an idea,” says owner David Roberts. The number of renters fluctuates, but now stands at around 20. Roberts says the biggest problem he’s encountered is producers failing to stay in business. “We try to get people to plan,” he says, sighing.

At Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Asheville, which served as inspiration for the Walterboro and Chester projects, users are referred to a range of existing entrepreneurial development programs. Unlike many nonprofit incubators, though, Blue Ridge Food Ventures doesn’t insist that clients leave the nest after a certain number of years. One of the 70 businesses now using the facility, UliMana, has been headquartered there for a decade.

UliMana makes organic raw chocolate truffles. Other Blue Ridge Food Ventures clients turn out kombucha, tempeh, natural energy bars and spent brewers’ yeast snacks. One prospective Chester client is now traveling to Asheville to produce her brownies for body sculptors. “She said,‘It’s flax seed,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do I put this sucker down?’,” Kellerhals recalls. “It was the best brownie I’ve ever had.”

Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ executive director Chris Reedy says, “People are seeing these niches in the market, and they’re coming in and saying, ‘I eat this way, and I can’t find this.’”

Among the niches that the Colleton Commercial Kitchen intends to fill is lunch service. The eating options in downtown Walterboro are currently limited to a hot dog joint, a pizzeria, a soda counter famed for its fried bologna and a squib of a sandwich shop tucked into a Christmas store. Kitchen manager Chad Carter, whose resume includes a cooking stint at McCrady’s and a graduate degree in food science from Clemson University, is developing a cafe in the kitchen’s 5,000-square-foot front room.

As well as serving wraps, smoothies and other items not on the menus of existing restaurants, Carter hopes the cafe will carry meats, produce and baked goods supplied by market vendors and shared kitchen users. He’s also setting aside a retail space for South Carolina products, such as honey, grits and Charleston Gold rice, which he suspects could lure travelers off nearby I-95.

“The wonderful thing about the Lowcountry food community is they’re more in collaboration than they are in competition, and we want to play to that,” Carter says. “We have so much opportunity here.”

Beyond the cafe area is the heart of the facility: A series of green-walled production rooms (Carter chose the paint partly because it’s called “rice paddy”), soon to be outfitted with $300,000 worth of equipment for making jams, jellies, pickles, hot sauces and cookies. Carter purchased an especially large kettle, because he anticipates lots of demand from aspiring barbecue sauce bottlers.

“We want people to be able to cook, fill, seal and get into the marketplace,” Carter says. “It’s really interesting to select equipment for this, because you call people up and they’ll say, ‘What are you packaging?’ and you say, ‘Everything.’”

The facility includes a demonstration kitchen where clients can attend training sessions or stage their own cooking classes. Carter also envisions using the space for a lecture series.

Although the fee structure hasn’t been finalized, most users will likely pay around $20 an hour. A USDA Rural Economic Development loan with a no-interest note and two-year deferred debt service has helped shift the financial burden off users. “We’re trying to keep the fee to a minimum,” Carter says. “We’re trying to foster business.”

Or as county administrator Kevin Griffin puts it, “We’re not just running a frou-frou kitchen for people to come in and play around.”

Colleton Commercial Kitchen plans to mark its grand opening on May 9. And if all goes as scheduled, Sheri Best will be boiling herb jellies even sooner, giving her customers and the community something to celebrate.