Community kitchen to give small entrepreneurs a boost

Nancia Sical, owner of Nancia’s Antojitos, roasting tomatoes and tomatillos and doing other prep for her chicken tamales. Photo by Mike Diegel. 

The Takoma Park Silver Spring Community Kitchen will hold its grand opening this weekend, bringing a new production facility to local, small-scale food entrepreneurs.

The venture grew out of the Crossroads Farmers Market, which was the reason the Crossroads Community Food Network was founded, said Executive Director Christie Balch. The group discovered that a number of customers wanted to start a food business of their own and sell at the market.

“We had to say ‘no’ to everyone because they either weren’t using a licensed kitchen, or they didn’t have the right product ideas . . . or they didn’t have the right certification,” Balch said.

So about four years ago, the network started a 10-week microenterprise training program to teach budding entrepreneurs how to run a legal food business, including licensing, certifications and business planning, among other topics.

“A lot of nonprofits teach you how to start a business,” Balch said, “but we’re the only ones in the area that teach you how to do the food-specific stuff, because it’s really complicated.”
Largely concurrently with getting the training program established, CCFN began looking for a facility so those who had graduated from the program (the first requirement) could have a licensed space to prepare their products for sale.

“We didn’t want to build a kitchen. We wanted access to someone’s existing kitchen, and we just couldn’t,” Balch said.

In the meantime, Silver Spring resident Vicki Warren had joined the leadership of the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church and had become a member of the Property Committee.

“The pastor at the time, Mark Greiner, wanted to show me the kitchen because somebody had told him that it could be useful,” she said.

The church’s kitchen had not been used and had fallen into disrepair over the years, but a potential partner was nearby and looking.

“The church said, ‘What if we remodel the kitchen and you guys operate it?’” Balch said.

A coalition including CCFN board President Lorig Charkouian, Silver Spring resident Jean Cavanaugh, church members Jill Feasley and Linda Borst-Kolko and others then came together to raise more than $400,000 for the remodeling, to get zoning changes put in place, to deal with issues such as permitting, licensing, asbestos remediation and utilities, and to overcome similar challenges.

“The beauty for us was that this project, I think, represents the true marriage of community in every respect,” Warren said, “from the talented people to now the vendors who were looking for ways to use their talents to start small, food-based businesses.

“From them to the government officials who supported us—we got county money, city money, state money, we got foundation money, we got individual money—and it was just an amazing partnership,” she added.

It also helped to have the two groups as partners when things looked bleak.

“No matter what hurdles we came up against, you just had a solid core group of people that just never would give up,” Warren said.

Now vendors such as Nancia Sical, who’s been selling at the Crossroads market since 2010, have a way to expand their business.

Sical owns Nancia’s Antojitos and produces traditional Guatemalan small plates, including carne asada, tortillas con carne, vegetable and chicken tamales, taquitos and tostadas. She also creates edible fruit arrangements.

Speaking largely through an interpreter for an interview, Sical talked about how helpful the training program has been for her. Prior to the community kitchen, she was cooking at the Takoma Park branch of Meals on Wheels on New Hampshire Avenue. The new kitchen is much better, she said, with lots of space for cooking and storage, including on a second floor, which she didn’t have in the past.

Sical was working 30 hours a week at Auto Zone, but her hours got cut and she left that job. She hopes now to spend the time to expand her sales, get a catering license and turn Nancia’s Antojitos into a fulltime business.

Her track and ambition is largely typical of the other vendors who will be using the kitchen, said Balch.

“One of our metrics for success is tracking all the different products made in the kitchen and all the different sales outlets,” Balch said. “Each individual business owner—it’s their responsibility to figure out to make their business work, but we provide a lot of support.”

The initial group of vendors getting that support includes:

  • Beverly Coleman, Gypsy Diva Fresh, providing Mason jar salads and brown bag lunches;
  • Cheryl Sloan, Cheryl’s Kitchen, featuring cookies and cakes with maple-frosted walnuts, pecans and cashews;
  • Xavier Carrillo, El Carreton Artisanal Frozen Treats, ice creams and sorbets in a variety of fruit flavors;
  • Mona McKenzie, Capital City Sweets & Treats, gluten-free/nut-free baked goods and confections;
  • Karen Munguia, Karing Cakes & Confections; and
  • Maribel Rodriguez, Marble Arch Gardens, transforming organic herbs into wellness products and foods.

The grand opening of the 1,120-square-foot facility will be held at 301 Tulip Ave. with a 4 p.m. ribbon cutting Saturday, Sept. 16. Afterward, attendees can meet some of the vendors and sample their goods. An RSVP is requested.

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