Williamsport Community Kitchen

Williamsport Community Kitchen build to help start-up food businesses grow

This time last year, Lisa Andrus, a native of Williamsport and professor of hospitality management at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, had been feeling the itch to get back into the operational side of the food and beverage business rather than just teaching it. When she connected with Mark Winkelman and looked at the space The Pajama Factory offers, two things became very clear. The space was ideal to develop into a premiere venue to host weddings and other events, and two, a kitchen would be needed to support the venue.

Why not develop a kitchen that can support the venue and the community, Andrus wondered. She had just started learning about the concept of community kitchens —  certified commercial kitchens that are shared and rentable by the hour to serve the needs of food entrepreneurs, such as start-up caterers, bakers and food-truck businesses.

Andrus pitched the idea to Winkelman, and it immediately took hold.

“Mark is a visionary. Being from New York City, he understands shared workspaces. And the  vision for the Williamsport Community Kitchen to be an incubator for start-up food businesses fits with Marks overall vision for The Pajama Factory.”

It would take investment on both of their parts. Winkelman invested in heating and air conditioning for the space, and Andrus designed and built the commercial kitchen with the help of her father, Ken Andrus. Construction of the kitchen will be completed by Thanksgiving, Andrus projects.

Located on the second floor of the Pajama Factory, Williamsport Community Kitchen is a shared, commercial kitchen with rentable kitchen space for individuals and groups. It’s also a non-profit organization.

With two work spaces to accommodate two working groups simultaneously, equipment at the facility includes six burner gas ranges, convection ovens, a tilting skillet, stainless steel work tables, three compartment sink, walk-in cooler and rentable dry and cold storage.

The Williamsport Community Kitchen will charge a deposit, a membership fee and an hourly rate to use the space, as is typical of other community kitchens.

Additionally, members may pay for dry storage space for their small-ware like utensils and cutting boards to keep everything in one location, as well as shelf space in the cooler to keep their product(s) fresh before distributing or catering.

Williamsport Community Kitchen is operated as a nonprofit organization, said Andrus, president and CEO. “Our goal is to help people grow successful businesses.”

To achieve this vision and mission, Andrus studied the business model of other community kitchens.

“Penn State Extension program has a list of community kitchens throughout the state —  including Pittsburgh, York and Philadelphia —  so during spring break last year, I visited these locations. Each place I went to, it was a lesson learned.”

The community kitchen in Pittsburgh, while ideally located in the Strip District and serving numerous vendors and food entrepreneurs, was actually closing its doors, Andrus learned, because the board of directors who operated the nonprofit did not want to renew its lease.

“All of these vendors, despite having this kitchen with shiny, new equipment, had to find somewhere else to go because the organization did not have the right makeup of people serving on the board.”

The insight made her conscious of not just the flow and functionality of the space she was creating, but the structure of the organization itself as a nonprofit and the people she would select to serve on its board of directors.

When she visited the community kitchen in York, she learned the county had taken on a lot of debt to build the space and could not afford to hire a full-time kitchen manager, so they assigned a county employee to oversee operations.

Her key takeaway: “Don’t start off with debt.”

The Greensgrow Community Kitchen in Philadelphia operates in a church and offers only one work space and a basement for storage, yet serves a multitude of vendors and offers culinary classes. Andrus saw that with little capital investment, the kitchen and the entrepreneurs it supports, are thriving.

She learned that a community kitchen doesn’t have to be pretty to serve the needs of new businesses. It needs to be accessible, affordable and well ran.

“Because I was able to research other community kitchens and create benchmarks, I have a policy handbook and a fee structure outlined for the Williamsport Community Kitchen that I believe will work.”

Andrus already has a waiting list of people and businesses ready to take full advantage of Williamsport Community Kitchen, including several food truck vendors.

“A community kitchen is an ideal setup for food truck entrepreneurs because they must be registered with a commercial kitchen to meet codes and regulations,” Andrus said.

Andrus also is receiving inquiries from local nonprofits who want to host benefit dinners at Clearstory, the event venue managed by Andrus Hospitality, LLC, while utilizing the Williamsport Community Kitchen to cook. “It’s a whole new market,” Andrus said. “We may be doing a lot of fundraising activities out of Williamsport Community Kitchen in addition to supporting start-up businesses.”

While construction will be completed by Thanksgiving, Andrus plans to use the space herself in December “to cook in it, feel it, make sure the flow makes sense and the processes are in place,” she said.

Williamsport Community Kitchen will be available for individuals and businesses to rent beginning in January.