By Taryn Phaneuf Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho.
Sisters Cookies "came through the ranks" as a Moscow business by using commercial kitchens, first at the 1912 Center, then at different restaurants downtown. Without access to those shared spaces, Sisters wouldn't have grown the way it has, owner Connie Rosendahl said.
"The most significant thing about having a shared commercial kitchen is for those who are just testing their product," she said. "We were hesitant to go into business anyway. What the commercial kitchen affords is to go ahead and meet the (food safety) regulations and still be able to test and see how these products are selling. I'm sure many entrepreneurs would be deterred if they had to come up with the facility to start with."
Like many other people in Moscow, she'd like to see more commercial kitchens available to fledgling businesses that need the space to legally sell food to others. Latah County Commissioners support installing a kitchen in the Grange building at the Fair and Event Center. Meanwhile, a resident built a small-scale version available for rent.
The demand for shared cooking space comes from groups wanting to sell prepared food to others, such as a local farmer who wants to sell a value-added product or a caterer who needs space to prepare for an event at a venue that doesn't have a kitchen of its own. Under health district regulations, they must use a space with a bathroom and separate hand and dishwashing sinks.
Nils Peterson opened a small kitchen on his property in Moscow earlier this year after hearing about the need for more than a decade. It's available to groups cooking food to sell as well as those who just want to spend an afternoon canning or cooking freezer meals -- the type of activities that quickly outgrow small apartment kitchens.
"I was interested in finding a way to help support the local food movement and I thought that the piece that I could potentially contribute was a boutique kitchen," Peterson said. He calls it a "boutique kitchen" because "some people, when they think of a commercial kitchen, they think of something really big."
Though he was sure people wanted a space like this, he hasn't had any takers yet.
"It sure seemed like there was a lot of interest," he said.
He started the project in 2012. Two years ago, he approached Sisters Cookies about using it, but it was too small for the volume of their business.
"It's more of like one person going in to make her pickles," Rosendahl said.
A smaller group recently checked out the kitchen to bake goods for wholesale but they couldn't make enough to cover the cost of renting Peterson's space. So Peterson is still looking for the sweet spot: the right cost and the right-sized operation.
Cinda Williams, who works in community food systems as a University of Idaho area extension educator, said the size of Peterson's space is a barrier.
"He had interest but when his facility was built, he hasn't been able to work it out with anybody," she said. "His is very small. He may not have the right configuration that's going to work. You'd think a small place would charge less. It seems feasible. But when you go in there -- I don't think there's room for even a small setup. It would take a specific type of food business that could use a smaller space."
She's worked with others on the Latah County fairboard who want to update and remodel the Grange building to install a commercial kitchen.
The Grange is "not a useable space at all," said Mauri Knott, chair of the board. "It was set up as two vendor kitchens. Both are ill equipped and extremely dated."
The kitchen could meet broader community needs, including a space for culinary or food preservation classes and shared cooking space for entrepreneurs.
The board has county funding and architectural plans and hopes to start demolition on the Grange in the spring. Until then, they're working on raising money for the project through grants and donations.
She's confident in the kitchen's potential because of the way interest in remodeling the space coincided with inquiries by several people and an economic development study that concluded the community could support more commercial kitchen space -- and wanted it.
"All these people were calling, and we didn't have the space for them," Knott said. "There was a definite need just coming to us without solicitation."