Can you tell us about Union Kitchen’s transformation from your original venture, the Blind Dog Café? How did the shift to sharing your production space with other businesses come about?We were looking to expand Blind Dog, which set us on a search for kitchen space. There wasn't much kitchen space available. We found what is now our first Union Kitchen location in NoMa. It was far too big for us to use for Blind Dog. We knew many of our friends were struggling to expand their kitchen operations, but also just to expand their business in general. So we decided to take on the real estate, but also to start identifying ways in which we could catalyze businesses growing. And thus began Union Kitchen.
What do you think has been the most rewarding part of creating a viable environment for other businesses to come together?We have been a part of nearly 30 storefronts launching around the city. Being contributors to the development our city's culture is fulfilling, as is the opportunity to advance social justice and egalitarianism.
How do you vet candidates for Union Kitchen? What are some of the qualifications or company goals that you look for when businesses apply to become Members?We evaluate the product, the process, and the person. We are exacting and have high standards while being very open-armed. If someone is willing to hustle and grind—with a real product and a real business—our community has a place for them.
What has been the most surprising part of your company’s evolution?Just the amount we've done is staggering and important to remind ourselves of. I don't know if there is any one part. I'm amazed that we've been able to build a foundation, handle the ups-and-downs, and grow to a place where I think we can have real influence and impact.
Having worked with larger brand names like Whole Foods, do you feel that your interest in being a part of a smaller local community of food production has changed?No, but it's important for consumers to understand that what you are getting at is a myth. Food is a multi-national, multi-trillion dollar industry. We are all cogs in a system. If we want systemic change consumers need to change their behavior. What I want or what Union Kitchen wants isn't really what matters—it is what the consumer is willing to pay for that drives our food system. We are only servants.
How has Union Kitchen been a part of allowing smaller companies or startups to expand on a more national level?We've always tried to be a customer of ourselves. Our business is really a pastiche of 7 different businesses which all engage with one another. We've run a bakery, a coffee shop, an art studio, a commercial kitchen, a business consulting firm, a distribution company, a catering company, a food manufacturer, and a non-profit. We have a pretty good sense of what the pain points are in a business and reducing those pay points in order to allow businesses to grow. We have created an infrastructure, suite of services, and expertise and experience that drives us and our Members to greater and greater heights.
What do you consider is the role of businesses like Union Kitchen in helping end food insecurity?Our business is a servant to consumers. If consumers want to end food security, they can by spending more money on food and supporting the people who work in food. Businesses are not and never will be social enterprises. Our mission is to build a food system that works, which fundamentally means that the prices are high enough to support high standards in food production and high standards of living for all of those who work in food. Food insecurity is about poverty and our contribution is to tell the story that we need to fight poverty to fight food insecurity and we can all fight poverty by demanding that we spend more on our everyday items and escape the deflationary, poverty-inducing cycle of racing to the bottom in terms of pricing.
As the company continues to expand, what are some of your goals for the near future?We are on a great trajectory. We'd like to see more of our Members make more money, open more storefronts, and get into more stores. We want to open more Union Kitchen Grocery's. And we want to continue to be both profitable and just by making more money for ourselves, seeing more of our employees vest into ownership in our business, and raise the standard of employment we can offer.
Photos courtesy of Jonas Singer and Broodjes + Bier.