By Michelle Kearns The Buffalo News, N.Y.
Food trucks are all over the city and suburbs these days, but a little-known secret is that church kitchens are a key ingredient in the success of some roving restaurants' business.
Food businesses need health-inspected kitchens with commercial ovens, industrial coolers and big sinks in order to get a license to sell. And churches, often struggling with big, old buildings and shrinking congregations, are glad for the rent money and public exposure they can get from food truck operators.
For both the chefs and the parishes, it's a match made in heaven.
The proprietor of the Whole Hog Truck roasts meat for pulled pork sandwiches in the kitchen of St. John's Grace Episcopal Church while the pink truck waits on Bidwell Parkway.
Before Lloyd's Taco hit the big time on reality TV, its fragrant cooking wafted from the kitchen of the First Presbyterian Church at Symphony Circle toward the lime green food trucks in the parking lot.
And the twin brothers behind Frank's Gourmet Hot Dogs load their sauces, frankfurters and buns into yellow and blue trucks outside the cafeteria kitchen of the now-closed Blessed Sacrament Church School in Tonawanda.
For years, area churches have used word-of-mouth to quietly offer kitchen space at low rents to parishioners and friends of friends. Lately, as the city's food culture has grown, so has demand for large cooking spaces. The often under-used kitchens in churches, equipped with giant standing mixers, open floor plans and lots of counter space, are just what startups are looking for.
When Paul and Frank Tripi decided to quit their office jobs and launch their hot dog truck, a friend told them to try Blessed Sacrament, the church their family went to when they were growing up.
For the last three years, the brothers have cooked just down the hall from the gym where they played as teens. "Sometimes we take a little break and go play hoops," Paul Tripi said.
The church's 10-burner stove has been great for simultaneously cooking barbecue sauce, tomato jam and chili while baking rolls. Demand for the twins' hot dogs grew so much that this year they added a second truck and another freezer. "We're not in anyone's way," said Paul. "It's been really, really convenient so far."
Brendan Haggerty, who once played a shepherd in a Christmas pageant on the parish hall stage at St. John's Grace Episcopal Church on Colonial Circle, now is more familiar with the church's kitchen, since he runs the Whole Hog food truck. "This church is really kind of a hub," said Haggerty.
Haggerty, who chopped kale and zucchini on a long, stainless steel counter during a recent visit, shares the kitchen with two other food businesses -- a Puerto Rican food truck and a chocolate candy maker.
Rentals at St. John's Grace Episcopal Church took off with help from another church-related entity. Westminster Economic Development Initiative, founded by Westminster Presbyterian on Delaware Avenue, first used the kitchen for its immigrant business incubator.
Before Grant Street's West Side Bazaar became known for delicacies like Burmese coconut noodle soup, some of the cooks worked in its kitchen.
After word got around about the commercial space, others, like Whole Hog, signed up.
Rents at the popular kitchen ranged from $20 an hour to $350 a month, but revenues weren't enough to make up for such heavy use, said David Mathewson, the organist and parish administrator.
"It was done more as a public service," he said. "When the kitchen was going at full tilt, it was really pretty incredible." Church kitchens are not homes for just food trucks. Other cooks and chefs also have found a relationship with churches. Twelve years ago, pastry chef Donna Majewski discovered the kitchen at the First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle through a friend.
The setup that evolved suited Majewski's Just Desserts business perfectly. To make her seven-layer chocolate cake for clients like Salvatore's Italian Gardens, she uses the three ovens, the large freezers and the double-door cooler. The kitchen even has its own elevator, which she uses to haul flour and supplies.
As part of her rent, Majewski makes dessert for the coffee hour after church.
"I come and go as I please ... It's private. The people are nice. They're fair," Majewski said. "All the equipment is great."
Pat Perfetto, the bookkeeper at St. Anthony Church on Court Street, fondly remembers the smell of baking cookies from the mid-1990s, when the founders of Spot Coffee relied on the church's extra kitchen space.
The downtown Catholic church has been looking for ways to get the word out again about renting its kitchen, which has been dormant since weekend bingo and game pizza sales stopped in 2012.
"It's big enough to be useful for anybody," Perfetto said.
Allison Ewing, the founding owner of the cooperative Bread Hive Bakery at 123 Baynes St., credits the church kitchen she once borrowed for helping to launc her business.
About the time she and friends decided to move up from baking in a wood-fired oven in someone's backyard, another friend told them about the rentals she coordinated at the Loretto Ministry Center on 14th Street, which was founded in the school, rectory and church buildings when Our Lady of Loretto Church closed in 2009.
In 2011, they paid $100 to bake on Friday nights before selling at the Saturday Clinton Bailey Market.
"It was an amazing opportunity," Ewing said. "We didn't have any capital at that point. We were just three crazy people with a dream."
They listened to WBLK as they baked into the wee morning hours so their sourdough loaves were ready for the Saturday Clinton Bailey Market. She remembers napping on the gym floor and feeling comforted by the homey, green Formica counter.
"Without that, it would have been harder to get the whole thing rolling," she said as she twisted dough into pretzels.
Lately, bagel, bread and granola sales have been promisingly brisk. The church kitchen was key. "It was," she said, "a good first step into being legit."
Planners behind the $9 million conversion of the 1894 Lafayette Presbyterian Church into apartments, offices and events space hope food entrepreneurs will use the renovated kitchen.
While they've ruled out renting to food trucks for fear that their odd hours would awaken residents, the space should work for other kinds of food businesses, said Murray Gould, Syracuse-based project manager, who oversaw the transformation.
A new cooking school for people with disabilities -- Professional Culinary Academy -- has already signed up to be one of the first to work from the kitchen, which was once home to the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen.
"We looked at it from the growing culinary need. There is a huge demand for commercial kitchen space," said Gould. "We've branded it as the 'Culinary Center.' " Experimental one-night "pop-up" restaurants could cook in the kitchen and seat diners in the reception room with stained glass windows and working gas fireplace.
"It's meant to be multi-purpose," Gould said of the kitchen. "We're building off the farm-to-table movement."