A Shared Kitchen Offers A Recipe For Success For Emerging Chefs

Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “Kitchen Korners” is the first private, minority-owned commercial kitchen facility in the Pennsylvania. The concept is to provide a secure space for start-up chefs to develop their products.


A decade ago, when Alonzo Coates cooked up the idea of opening a shared commercial kitchen in a Northeast Philadelphia garage he owns, he couldn’t have predicted that the project would test the limits of his patience.

He hired an architect to design the facility off Bustleton Avenue in Mayfair and filed for a zoning variance in 2014. The zoning took two years and multiple lawyers to obtain. It took three more years to secure financing and city permits. A faulty building foundation delayed construction. Then COVID-19 put everything on ice.

“It’s been a journey, man,” said Coates, 55, who also owns residential rental properties and a janitorial business, which kept him afloat as his commercial kitchen concept stewed in a slow cooker of bureaucracy.

Coates finally opened Kitchen Korners earlier this year. And on Thursday, an entourage of state officials who provided a 15-year, $220,000 low-interest loan in 2018 under the Pennsylvania Minority Business Development Authority (PMBDA), visited the site to pop a cork and celebrate. They were joined by Coates’ family, friends and two of the chefs who lease the kitchen to produce their culinary creations.

Though there are many commissaries in the region, Coates’ concept of providing a secure space for start-up chefs to develop their products fit squarely into the mission of the PMBDA, said Cathy Onyeaka, the authority’s executive director. Kitchen Korners is the “first private, minority-owned commercial kitchen facility in the state,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which oversees PMBDA.

Coates impressed his lenders with his work ethic and provided them with frequent updates as the pandemic delayed construction and the delivery of kitchen equipment. “The pandemic really stretched out the project,” Onyeaka said. “But at the end of the day, everything came together. He’s really a wonderful borrower. He’s my dream borrower.”

Coates, who has an economics degree from Penn State, worked his way up the ladder over the years with jobs in shoe sales, rental cars and mortgage financing. In 2006, he invested in a franchise commercial cleaning enterprise, which led to contracts managing the medical cleaning and dietary services for a 15-bed inpatient hospice unit and a 30-bed respiratory special-care unit.

“That’s what gave me the idea for Kitchen Korners, because I had to get certified in the kitchen and I was like, ‘Man, managing a kitchen is not a bad idea,’” he said.

Coates said many shared commissaries are designed for more established chefs and require longer-term commitments. Kitchen Korners takes in some short-term clients — recently an out-of-town chef came in just to prepare a wedding cake. Longer-term clients, who obtain a membership, get dedicated on-site storage space for their food and tools.

Trained to clean health care facilities, Coates or an employee sanitize the kitchen after every use to meet hospital standards. He sets a high bar for hygiene.

“He’s kind of compulsive about cleanliness,” said Helena Geraldine, who owns a catering business called Cheat with Mee Desserts and rents the kitchen for about 30 hours a month, at about $50 an hour. Using the kitchen’s two convection ovens and industrial mixer, Geraldine can produce about 360 cupcakes in a half-day.

Along with a 10-burner gas stove, gas grill, griddle, walk-in refrigerator and freezers, Coates also tricked out the 650-square-foot space with a killer sound system. The chefs can immerse themselves in their work, surrounded by their favorite music, without having to worry about the roving eyes of rival chefs in a larger, common kitchen.

“This is really a comfortable place,” Geraldine said. “Alonzo is warm and welcoming.”
Perseverance seems to be a common thread running through Kitchen Korners.

Mary Muse, 60, whose career in corporate communications ended after a 2006 vehicular accident caused a traumatic brain injury, has developed a line of vegan desserts and soul food she has sold from a food truck, at catered events, and at pop-up pie sales under her brand name, Ma Dookz. She is currently refining the commercial production of a gluten-free frozen salmon cake at Kitchen Korners.

Muse, who has seven adult children and lives in Bryn Mawr, has produced vegan dessert pies for Villanova University’s food service and also has an agreement with Brown’s ShopRite stores to sell the frozen salmon cake next year. She calls the salmon cake the Patty Patty in honor of WDAS Radio host and personality Patty Jackson, who had a stroke in 2015 and, like Muse, underwent treatment at Moss Rehabilitation.

Muse, whose gifts as a raconteur rival her skills as a chef, has developed an impressive network of supporters. She called Earl Harvey, a publisher and booster of Black businesses who died in 2020, her “angel investor” who urged her to cater an event at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

She said that Harvey also introduced her to VestedIn, a Philadelphia nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that nourishes entrepreneurs in disadvantaged communities.

Although VestedIn is a lending agency, it recognizes that some entrepreneurs, such as Muse, need more than capital to get started, said James Burnett, a former banker who heads the nonprofit. “We realized that Ms. Muse really needed to understand where her opportunities were,” he said. She was not “bank-ready.”

VestedIn referred Muse to the Temple University Small Business Development Center, which provided her with training in business fundamentals, such as financial statements and scaling up production. She is also enrolled in Santander Bank’s Cultivate Small Business program, which supports early-stage entrepreneurs in the food industry, with a focus on businesses owned by women, immigrants and people of color.

What distinguished Muse — and the same could be said for Coates, her landlord at Kitchen Korners — is determination.

“We make recommendations to a lot of businesses,” said Burnett at VestedIn. “And some of those businesses go off and do them. And for those that don’t, we’re not really chasing them.

“Ms. Muse continues to call and wants to get feedback,” he said. “She is taking the advice, and not just from me. She’s incorporated those ideas into her business. You want to take a risk with that person.”

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