Danielle Kaufman was working as a teacher for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, but while on maternity leave she stumbled into a second career before the arrival of her new daughter.
"I was hanging around the house waiting for her to come and I was, like, I love to bake so I'm going to try this decorated cookie thing," she explains.
Like many cottage food operators, Kaufman was baking out of her home kitchen in Solon and selling to family, friends and at local farmer's markets. Her nascent business, MK Sweets, offers a variety of colorful hand-designed cookies that look as appealing as they taste, but the busier Kaufman got, the more impractical her workspace became.
"I just felt that I was outgrowing my kitchen," she reports. "And I wanted to be able to separate my work life from my home life. It's hard to put work down and spend time with my family when it's always there waiting for me."
A quick Google search for commercial kitchen space landed her at the front door of Prep Kitchen-CLE, a brand-new shared-use kitchen space on the west bank of the Flats. Launched by physician, real estate developer and entrepreneur Rafid Fadul, the urban culinary incubator was built precisely for folks like Kaufman.
"So many people come to me and say, 'Hey, can I rent space from you?'" says Fadul, who also developed the bustling Tenk West Bank complex nearby. "It became obvious that there was a demand for this. Cleveland has really established itself as a culinary destination and there is supply-driven demand for local food products."
Fadul spent "way too much time and money" converting a sordid warehouse building into a gleaming commercial kitchen just steps from the Cuyahoga River. The 2,100-square-foot footprint is divided into two distinct spaces, a roomy Chef's Kitchen outfitted with a range, oven, broiler, deep-fryer, griddle and plenty of counter space, and the Prep Kitchen, a slightly smaller work space that's no less equipped.
The spaces are rented by the hour on a first-come, first-served basis. Users can make reservations up to three months in advance, and the rates are as low as $25 per hour with a two hour minimum. The use of long-term dry, cold and freezer storage is available for additional fees. Also available for rent is the Chef's Table, a small but attractive event space attached to the Chef's Kitchen with a 12-seat table. Thanks to the fully equipped line, the area is ideal for meetings, catered affairs, or for users wanting to show off their novel food business to potential buyers.
When Fadul first acquired the property, he reached out to friend and chef Roberto Rodriguez, owner of Orale Mexican Cuisine at the West Side Market. Together, they discussed the possibility of using some of the space as rentable commercial kitchens.
"At the time I was thinking about closing my restaurant and I wanted to look for a place to do my cooking," explains Rodriguez, who did all of his cooking and catering out of his now-closed restaurant on West 25th Street. "It was so hard to find anywhere, besides cooking out of a church."
Rodriguez cites finding the right location, navigating the thorny licensing and permitting process, and build-out expense as more than enough reasons to do all of his cooking at Prep Kitchen-CLE.
"It makes my life so much easier," he says.
More than just kitchen space, Prep Kitchen-CLE aims to help budding food entrepreneurs turn a calling into a career. Fadul, co-owner Emily Thomas, and even tenants like Rodriguez are eager to share best practices and advice to develop their business.
"Our goal is to help people grow from the idea stage to a small business, to not just be the space you need but also get you in front of a buyer or help with brand design — all the components that go into creating a successful business," says Fadul.
Kaufman appears to be well on her way to doing just that. Since moving her sweets business out of her home and into Prep Kitchen-CLE, she has landed accounts at Nordstrom E-Bar at Beachwood Place Mall and in Pittsburgh. By being in a licensed commercial kitchen, she also can now ship her food products nationwide to Etsy customers, something cottage operators are prohibited from doing.
But don't expect to see MK Sweets cookies on every store shelf soon.
"For now the appeal of the job is that it's part-time and flexible, but next steps for me is to probably hire someone to help bake and package my products," she says. "The job was always fun to begin with, but now I really like going to work every day."