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(Union Kitchen) Union Kitchen Founders Give Food Startups a Place to Create, Contribute, Prosper

Thursday, August 4, 2016

DC Inno - Ryan O. Ferguson

Cullen Gilchrist and Jonas Singer never meant to start a food incubator. Initially, they just needed some kitchen space to prep the food for their own Blind Dog Cafe. But they ended up with too much space, so started renting it out to other small food businesses. A few short years later, Gilchrist and Singer are managing two large locations of shared industrial kitchen space, as well as a grocery market to sell its members goods, with a second store coming on line in the coming months.

Union Kitchen is up to 130 members, food producers of all variety, and have a staff just short of fifty. Their second Union Kitchen Grocery will be opening later in 2016 in Blagden Alley. But as well as their business is doing, Gilchrist and Singer have a larger goal in mind: continuing to build and feed a flourishing community of food producers and consumers. With the motto of Create, Contribute, Prosper they hope to create a valuable social profit for the District. I spoke with Cullen Gilchrist about Union Kitchen's approach and ethos, and why D.C. is unique when it comes to innovation.

What made you decide to jump from running a restaurant to creating a food incubator?

CG: When we started Union Kitchen it wasn't really a fully fleshed out idea, it was just this idea to share kitchen space. Immediately we realized the difficulties of starting and running a food business. When we look around our city we see the potential for a community of talented food producers. So how do you actually create that? We provide the services, the infrastructure, the distribution to make that possible.

Your motto is Create, Contribute, Prosper. The first and the last make sense from a business perspective, but how do you define 'contribute' and why is it so important?

CG: We're trying to contribute to a community that we're all a part of. Whether that's a food truck that's out there bringing a new taste to neighborhoods across the city or someone developing a product they can sell in local markets. We're trying to contribute what we can in terms of knowledge. Everyone is doing their part to grow all our businesses.

You are a certified B-Corporation. What does Union Kitchen do to give back and why was that designation important to you?

CG: It's important on a few levels: on a most basic level it allows the owners to act in the best interest of the company from a social perspective, so it allows us to focus on our social profit as well as our financial profit.

[From Union Kitchen] a lot of jobs are created, and when jobs are created you're creating wealth. When someone is putting careful considerations into making food, that creates social wealth. That can range from sustainable to vegan to organic, and when we went through the testing to become a B-corp these were all things that were important to us.

What has been an unexpected challenge for Union Kitchen and what did you have to do to overcome it?

CG: I don't know if any of the challenges have been unexpected. Challenges in food have been similar for the last 100 years: distribution, price, the regulatory side and taxes you need to know how to do. Those haven't changed much so nothing is too surprising. Food is straightforward and everyone understands it.

In any industry, there is the pitfall of thinking too much alike everyone else. How do you challenge yourself to think differently?

CG: For us we're just trying to build successful food business and if that leads us to do things differently than others, that's a bonus.

What is an unlikely place that you find sources of inspiration?

CG: I'm inspired in D.C. by the general appetite and quest for knowledge. People want to do things and want to do things well. My inspiration come from our own team in that we're all trying to do things well and do the best we can.

What job have you had that has had the greatest impact on your career?

CG: The job I currently hold has had the greatest impact on my career.

If you could change something about D.C., what would it be?

CG: I wish there would be a little more interconnectivity between neighborhoods. There are so many vibrant neighborhoods. I wish the walkability and ability to move from one neighborhood to another that already exists, to some extent, would continue to improve.

What makes Washington D.C. different when it comes to innovation?

CG: D.C. is unique because of the people in D.C. and the people that come to D.C., that mix and how they interact. I think it's unique because of the industries people work in and that influences how they eat. I'm from Boston which has its own food identity and culture -- in D.C. I see a lot that's been done when it comes fast casual, prepared food in grocery stores and people doing awesome stuff there.