I was connected to Chelsea Spyres through a mutual friend last fall, and we met up for lunch at Pinji’s Cafe in Wilmington’s Trolley Square. We talked about our shared experience of moving to Delaware at the beginning of the pandemic, and trying to build new friendships and community connections during that time. When our conversation shifted to talking about food access in Wilmington specifically and Delaware as a whole, I learned that she was working somewhat covertly on a network of kitchen incubators in the city.
“Covertly” because they were already growing a lengthy waiting list even though they had not officially announced the first location. My interest was piqued, and I excitedly told Spyres I’d love to include her when I started my planned work on a series around food access and justice for the Delaware Call.
Several months later, I finally met up with Spyres at Grace Church in downtown Wilmington. The first kitchen location had officially opened, and she was ready to spread the word of the community they were building. We sat down in a small cafe-like area just inside Grace’s front doors to talk more.
What are the community kitchens and why are you doing them?
We are the Wilmington Kitchen Collective, and we really come from this idea of ‘kitchen incubators’ which are not a new idea but they are new for the city of Wilmington. To renovate spaces that are underutilized, and to create space for culinary entrepreneurs to begin and to develop their business.
So the model is really that we can use space, that many people can share the same space and that together we can bring together lots of different resources. So for us as a church — I’m both with Riverfront Church and Grace; I’m Pastor and Executive Director of Riverfront, who is the operating partner of the kitchen, and then Grace United Methodist is our first space — so for us as churches, it’s about sharing resources, and inviting community to the table in a new way.
What was the inspiration?
So Wilmington Alliance came to us with the idea. They had done a couple of feasibility studies to make sure there was actually a need for this in the city. Originally they were going to build a space from scratch. But then as they continued to think about funding and continued to think about the project, they said, “Are there spaces that are sitting dormant and that would be willing to partner with us?” And so we came to the table as a partner.
So I know that you had a waiting list even before you publicly announced that this would be happening. How did people hear about you, and what did that word of mouth kind of indicate about the demand for this type of place?
There were a couple of news articles that were published slightly before we were ready for them. As word started to spread that we were building this, folks started contacting us to say, “How can we be a part of this?”
It showed us there really was this need. It’s shaped how we’ve launched here at Grace and how we think about what other locations look like.
How has it shaped that? What has changed?
We never imagined we would be in touch with 50 businesses right away. We thought this would be a slow beginning. But with a great need, it has proven that we need more staffing help, in order to communicate well and be able to offer workshops and other resources while we can’t offer physical space to all 50. And it has really challenged our Riverfront board to think about those future spaces. So we never imagined we would open multiple spaces when we first started. But Riverfront’s model is that we don’t have a physical space for our worship; we meet outside, at the riverfront, under the pavilion. And so, the ways that we use outdoor space, and other spaces that already exist – restaurant and bars – for our meetings, allow us to invest missionally, and that has allowed us to think about future locations.
Do you have a second, or even third, location in progress right now?
Yes! So I can’t share where, because details are still being finalized, but we are talking to multiple churches, and talking to them about how they could run a space like this, or how we could come on board and operate this space in their location.
It’s been really exciting with our launch. In January, we officially passed health department inspections, so we are officially open. With our launch, there has been a lot of community excitement, and a lot of community leaders asking, “How can we replicate this model in our location?”
So as far as replication, and funding, does funding come from Wilmington Alliance, is it both the church partner and the Alliance? And how would adding more independent locations, so to speak, and bringing them into this growing partnership work?
So, yes. Funding comes from both the Wilmington Alliance and from our church partners. One of the unique parts of the collective is that it is this space where the business sector and the religious sector are coming together. Both for funding and just for operational decisions and work. Which is really unique. I think often those two worlds are pretty separate. But the ways that we are – just the ways that we fit into both sectors’ missions allow this to be a space that is funded in both ways.
As we look for new church partners, that obviously means more funding, but we are committed – Riverfront is committed to continue writing grants, and continue to seek new partners and to go back to those first partners, and say, “Location #1 is built, and is successfully running, and we have 40+ business on our waiting list. Help us meet this need.”
What’s the capacity of the current location?
At Grace, the health department has approved us for seven businesses to begin with.
All seven have now been approved by the health department, and they will begin in this space as jobs arise for them. The health department has said we can likely grow that to 10 businesses by the end of the year.
Is that because you have to have a dedicated refrigerator and additional spaces?
Exactly. It’s really about how much dry storage, refrigeration, and freezer space we have.
Can you tell me anything about the businesses that have signed on so far?
All of our businesses are in startup or developing mode. We have one that is an established food truck, two who were kind of popup stand locations, and now are building food trucks. One who is a water ice vendor who is looking to expand to include some cooked foods as well. And then, three who are bakers.
[Editor’s note: see the full list of businesses here, including those being supported through workshops and training!]
So Grace Methodist is located downtown. Are the customers reflective of the downtown community? Where are these businesses and business owners located?
All of our businesses are in the Wilmington area, kind of throughout the city. And really, Grace sits at this intersection, where when you look out two sides of the building, we are in downtown business, and when you look out the other two sides we are in the West Center City neighborhood. I think that really reflects the kitchen as well. Bringing neighbors and folks who have a dream of starting businesses into a space of development and a space of community building. One of the hopes is that by being here at the Collective, that their business will gain more support and have more opportunities for catering and for other jobs.
So we really see one of our main roles is to be cheerleaders and advocates for our business owners. That our social media, our web presence is really to promote them, to help them grow their business.
What is that web presence?
You mentioned community building. What does that look like for both residents and waiting list members?
At the Collective, we believe that we are not experts in any of this, but that we are space for bringing experts together. It looks like partnership with other community organizations, like the Small Business Development Center that is based out of University of Delaware. Like the Food Bank of Delaware, that offers culinary classes. Like other resources such as food styling, photography, social media management; that the Collective can be a space where lots of different resources come together.
And that our entrepreneurs are really learning from and teaching one another.
We have a variety of different businesses at different stages, and already they are learning from each other around food pricing, and around equipment ordering, around social media and marketing. Just kind of the ways that casual conversations happen. And the ways that trust is being built as folks are physically working side by side in the kitchen, that community is forming.
As far as that larger community support, are there specific resources or areas of expertise that you are looking to bring into this Collective where people reading this could reach out?
We are especially trying to learn more about how our folks can gauge changing prices, as food prices increase. How they manage their budget, and how their menu can still be affordable for their customers. That’s our main one right now.
We’re also looking for folks to serve in a mentoring role as far as QuickBooks and basic business management. We have a lot of the wider tools, but implementing those tools and keeping them consistent day to day, we’re looking for folks to come alongside.
What would be the best way to get in touch?
Reach out to our kitchen manager, Katie LeCocq, who is new on board but is our program manager. Her email is [email protected]
Is there anything else that you want to share? Do you have a vision for what you hope this turns out to be?
5, 10 years down the road, I envision multiple kitchen incubators throughout the city of Wilmington, and even throughout the state. I envision lots of community events, where our entrepreneurs are catering and where community is coming together over food; where through this mentoring program, folks in this first cohort are coaching and training new business owners as they continue to become experts in this field, that they’re just continuing to share their knowledge. I envision the kitchen to be a space of teaching for children and youth as well. We’re already talking to Serviam Girls’ Academy that’s based at Grace, for what that could look like.
I envision more community garden space, which has already begun outside here in our playground area, where entrepreneurs and volunteers are growing the vegetables and herbs to go directly into recipes. That the Kitchen Collective would be a part of this food ecosystem but that it wouldn’t be the only part.
You mentioned community events. Have you thought about doing a showcase?
Yeah! We will have a grand opening party on May 19th from 4-8pm that everyone is invited to. We’ll have live music, and our entrepreneurs are the chefs for the evening. It will really just be a celebration of opening this space.
We also are excited to welcome our entrepreneurs to our regular food distribution events here at Grace. On the 3rd Saturday of every month we have a large food distribution with the Food Bank of Delaware, and once a quarter Grace will be sponsoring a hot meal with our entrepreneurs as the chefs.
Editor’s note: And July 16 will feature Ma Ada’s water-ice (one of our Kitchen Collective entrepreneurs) and live music. If people want to volunteer they should contact Chelsea at [email protected]
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I can’t stop saying how awesome that is.
Yeah, there’s lots of possibilities! And I really do think this is just the beginning around here.
Keep up with Wilmington Kitchen Collective!
- Grand Opening! May 19th from 4-8pm
- Regular food distribution, the 3rd Saturday of every month
- Ma Ada’s water-ice and live music on July 16th
All events are located at Grace Church, 900 Washington St, Wilmington, DE 19801