A Communal Kitchen
Jo Coleman and Cassandra Morrison, the co-owners of southfield’s The Culinary studio, were already successful entrepreneurs when they saw a need in the community for a licensed commercial kitchen. so they teamed up to fulfill that need.
“My daughter would call us serial entrepreneurs,” Coleman says. She is an interior designer and founder of Healthy Eating Community, which brings together a dozen people to plan a menu, shop and cook, and take home a prepared meal. Morrison is involved in a day-care business and owns the Festive Chef, which provides personal chef and catering services.
In 2011, The Culinary Studio opened in a strip mall on Northwestern Highway. “It took several months to build it out,” Coleman says. Mentored by a similar venture called Kitchen Chicago, they put up a website, began hosting events and attending other events where local food entrepreneurs could be found.
They also gained traction through the inspectors they met along the way to getting their kitchens licensed. “The inspectors have been huge about referring people,” Coleman says. “We were really the first Metro Detroit shared-use kitchen.”
They provide two licensed commercial kitchens, side by side. Each kitchen has a commercial stove, convection oven, griddle and mixers. There is a shared scullery and an area for necessities like towels, hair covers and aprons.
“When we opened we fully stocked with utensils, pots and pans,” Coleman says. There is a walk-in cooler and, next to it, a walk-in freezer where clients rent shelf space. They can also rent cages for dry goods. “By law they have to store their dry goods here onsite.”
The roomy space is clean and bright. “When clients come in the kitchen’s clean, and that’s how they leave it,” Coleman says. “We have our own crew come in once a week and deep clean everything.”
Clients rent the kitchens by the hour, around the clock, and have secure access via a coded lock. “People working here late at night feel comfortable,” Coleman says. There is plenty of parking and foot traffic from surrounding businesses, including a couple of restaurants.
One regular user is Wallace Scones. Co-owners Mary Wallace and Julie Tenbusch, both retired nurses, got their start when both were still in health care, baking scones for coworkers, family and friends at the holidays. In 2013 they sold $2,000 worth, and people wanted more.
“What they were telling us is we want these when we want them, not just when you make them,” Wallace says. Now, after obtaining food-handler licenses, the women spend their mornings making scones at The Culinary Studio, where they became clients in 2014. Because the scones are sold frozen to retailers, they must be made in a licensed commercial kitchen.
“We were looking at churches, K of C halls, vets halls,” Wallace said, before finding The Culinary Studio online. “It really has worked out well. You really can get in there any time you want to.” In summer they also bake their scones there to sell at farmers’ markets and festivals. “We had a lot of 60-hour weeks.”
Working at The Culinary Studio has had unexpected benefits. “As a new entrepreneur, having the benefit of the more experienced entrepreneurs there” has been great, she said. She mentioned Suzi Owens of Scotty O’Hotty Sauce, and “the nuggets of wisdom she throws over the wall, so to speak.”
The Salt & Sugar Company also started at home, moving to The Culinary Studio in 2015. Alisha Nemeth said she and her husband, Jesse, started as a cottage food business while her husband was working as a chef at Morton’s Steakhouse. Today the company is a licensed caterer with a food truck.
“Our plan from the beginning was to have a commercial kitchen,” she says. The Culinary Studio “was one of the few options available to us at the time to start our business without having to come up with a lot of money. So for us, I think it was an excellent place to start. It’s also a good place for people who are doing production. … It’s a great incubator for new business.”
Clients of The Culinary Studio include caterers, meal-delivery services and purveyors of local, ethnic and vegan foods for retail: juice, sausage, salad dressing, quiche and caramels, to name a few. “We’ve gotten a lot of requests lately for food-truck businesses,” Coleman says.
Products made at The Culinary Studio are found in specialty markets and larger grocery stores all over the state: from Arbor Farms to Zehnder’s, Meijer, Plum Markets, Busch’s, Holiday and Hollywood. “We’ve had clients who are highly successful and have moved on to brick and mortar,” Coleman says. Scotty O’Hotty, for example, was a client for five years before recently moving to its own bottling and packaging facility.
Clients pay a fixed hourly rate to use The Culinary Studio, with a minimum of eight hours a month. They must complete any licensing requirements.
“Right now we’re starting to outgrow our space,” Morrison says. They’d like to add more freezer and cooler space, and they can foresee the need for a full-time manager. Moving to a new, larger space at this point is cost-prohibitive. “We need partners,” Coleman says. “It is really an expensive buildout.”
Their vision includes a retail space onsite. “I even wanted to do a drive-thru for healthy meals,” Coleman says. “Those are our dreams.”
Find out more at MyCulinaryStudio.