Small businesses and entrepreneurs in the Arkansas food-production business are finding a friendly home in Little Rock at Arkitchen -- a commercial kitchen that operates like an informal business incubator.
More than 20 small businesses involved in the food industry -- pastry-makers, sauce companies, food trucks, health bar producers -- cite Arkitchen as an important ingredient in their success.
"Arkitchen is an important steppingstone that lets you get your business started," said Kent Wood, founder and chief executive officer of Read The Labl, a Little Rock sauce company. "It was a great opportunity for me to build a business and not go into a lot of debt or give up a lot of equity."
The 5,000-square-foot kitchen is located on the back end of a strip shopping center on West Markham Street. It's a shiny warehouse, filled with pots and pans and dozens of storage racks. Stainless steel, commercial-grade dishwashers, freezers and refrigerators line the walls, with multiple stoves and smokers surrounded by food prep tables in the middle of the kitchen.
"Businesses can come in here and treat this just like their own brick-and-mortar operation," said owner Jon Lamb. "They just come in and set up shop; we have everything they need to get up and running, whether it's for cooking or for storage."
The open kitchen can accommodate about six businesses cooking simultaneously, giving them plenty of space to prep and cook products. Members have access to the kitchen 24 hours, seven days a week and every day of the year. Arkitchen offers access ranging from walk-in hourly rates to a $1,000 monthly rate that includes 80 hours of kitchen time.
Equipment is included in the rental rates, but customers are encouraged to add their own as needed. "We have what they need to get started but this is an opportunity to add your own equipment so that it's available as you continue to grow," Lamb said.
There's an "autonomous kitchen" that is a private work area sealed off from the other production stations for producers who need a controlled environment or added sanitation protection.
"I don't know of any other place in the country that has a unique space like that to offer companies," said Wood, who used the space to produce and package his sauces. "It's unique in a commercial kitchen environment."
Arkitchen provided the ideal support system for Hayne Begley to expand his Little Rock food-truck business, Delta Biscuit Co. Begley initially used the kitchen to store goods, wash dishes faster and park his truck overnight so it could remain plugged in, preventing the loading and unloading of supplies every day.
"It was a big time saver in the beginning," Begley said.
Today, Begley cooks in the kitchen, where he can use the commercial equipment to prepare products faster and even store them for upcoming events.
"It's an integral part of my business now," he added. "I have access to a kitchen that allows me to prep for multiple events at a time, rather than trying to do one event at a time on the food truck. It prevents a lot of running around. I can take what I need for the truck for an event or for a day."
Lamb started the business in July 2017 with his wife, Victoria, who works for an electric cooperative in Little Rock.
"The idea sprouted from my wife's experience working for a coop and my experience in the kitchen," said Lamb, who has worked as a chef in various kitchens in Little Rock. "We kind of just put the two together to develop a way to help businesses work together and support each other in the food industry."
Word spread fast and customers were soon knocking on his door. "It really was like a Field of Dreams," Lamb said. "We built it and people just started flocking to it."
In addition, Lamb has built up a resource network and knowledge base that helps entrepreneurs who have no idea of how to obtain a permit or gain state approval to manufacture and sell food on store shelves.
"Jon was very important to us in the beginning, giving us help with legal issues and permitting," said Barbara Evans, owner of Aunt Bee's Salsa, now operating its own store in Lonoke with production and packaging facilities. "We got a lot of support on technical issues that we didn't know much about."
Helping members work through technical issues is an important service that has grown over time, according to Lamb.
"After helping so many businesses get started here, we've developed the experience to help walk new ones through the permitting process and make it easier for them," he said. "I'm very comfortable working with any business that comes through our kitchen to get them prepared for what they're going to face to get a permit and any other things they may need to get up and running."
Nathan Brown of Teaberry Kombucha also turned to Lamb for help in the early days. Brown was unaware of the stringent health department regulations, inspections and all the paperwork required to brew his fermented tea product. "I had no idea what I needed to operate a commercial kitchen to make my product," he said.
"I probably would have made a lot of mistakes if I had just jumped into it on my own," Brown added. "The kitchen allowed me to hit the ground running and concentrate on my product while going through the inspection process. It also saved me a lot more time to get the business built."
Businesses that have been developed in the kitchen are achieving success. Read The Labl sells at 20 retail locations in Arkansas and online through Amazon; Delta Biscuit Co. has added a catering business; Teaberry Kombucha has more than a dozen distribution points in Little Rock, Benton, Hot Springs and Paris; Aunt Bee's Salsas has its own storefront in Lonoke and also sells at 16 retail locations in central Arkansas.
Lamb is proud of that track record. Even more, it's been a great pleasure watching the members work together, share ingredients, refer business to each other -- collaborating to build a local food community.
"It's been very fulfilling to see how this concept has taken off and grown here in Little Rock," Lamb said. "We've created a community of businesses that support each other and help each other grow. It's really been fun to be a part of it."
Collin Hooper (right), owner of Crave, and employee Nate Longinotti work at Arkitchen, a commercial kitchen that provides cooking and baking space for small businesses in the food industry.
SundayMonday Business on 11/03/2019