I have spent time around startups in other industries such as tech and manufacturing. In those areas there is a strong supporting cast of resources and paths to help establish startups and move them into a full company. Even here in Little Rock we have the Innovation Hub that helps both tech and manufacturing startups as well as the Little Rock Tech Park for those looking to take the next step up and start putting a full company together. Then there are groups like Winrock International’s Innovate Arkansas Program (a former employer of mine), a whole host of services from UALR, and many investment and capital groups.
When it comes to food industry however, that structured support is no where to be found. It is why so many turned to food trucks as a startup tool. The costs are a fraction of opening a restaurant and, at least until the past year or so, it was trendy enough to support itself. Good restaurants such as Southern Gourmasian, The Pizzeria, and kBird came out of the truck scene. However the whole food truck scene crashed and burned a little over a year ago, leaving no outlet for these startup minded food people to have a low cost option to get started.
All of this really stacked the odds against the growing food scene. Then last August what is now ARKitchen quietly opened the doors on their commercial kitchen space.
“I have spent my life in the restaurant industry, and I started this to help others in the industry,” owner John Lamb tells us. “I wanted a place where people could come and have access to everything they need to grow their business from an idea to a profitable concept.”
Startup was a little slow, being unassumingly tucked behind a hardware store on Markham didn’t help matters. They were originally branded as Your Pro Kitchen, a franchise operation out of Florida. Lamb recently broke away from the franchise to rebrand as ARKitchen. A move that has allowed them to adapt to local food startups better, and spend funds in a way that reflects the local needs.
The kitchen space at ARKitchen is meant to serve as an incubator space for a wide range of customers. The space is divided between a bakery and traditional kitchen, with top of the line equipment in each. Lamb additionally upgrades equipment based on the needs and demands of the folks using the space.
Speaking of the people using the space, walking around all you hear is praise for what the space has done for their business. The combination of equipment and the sense of community inside the space has helped a number of businesses grow.
“It has been a fantastic spot to work on my idea and further develop it. I would have never been able to get my concept to market without it,” Jason Collins, who is one of ARKitchen’s newest members tells us. Collins is working on a wholesale organic pimento cheese concept called Royal Organic Foods while working two restaurant jobs. He has been able to develop the product and practice producing in scale while he waits the return of his business license. Once he has that he will look at selling the pimento cheese to local grocery stores and restaurants.
“This space has been such a blessing. It has done wonders for my business,” Matcha Norwood, owner of Cinnalightful, tells us. You may remember Norwood from an article a few years ago when she started. At that time she was just making a few cinnamon rolls out of her house using cottage laws. Now she has expanded to cakes and cheese cakes and her daily production is several hundred times larger than when we first spoke with her. So large in fact that she would have never been able to product this much in a home kitchen as her cakes often span 4-5 prep tables.
Others include Banana Leaf Grill, who has a brick and mortar in the bottom of the Simmon’s tower downtown. Their brick and mortar space has very limited kitchen space, so they prep much of their food at ARKitchen before service and transport it over. There is also Arkansas Gourmet Rice Company who produces and bags their rice mixes for the farmer’s markets and wholesale inside ARKitchen.
The space is surprisingly flexible, and easily adapts to anyone who comes in. They even carved out a room for Teaberry Kombucha Co’s owner Nathan Brown who needed a private space to brew his Kombucha away from the various elements that naturally float around in a kitchen space. They also have food truck docking and storage stations complete with power and commissary.
All of it comes surprisingly cheap too, allowing customers to rent by the hour for as little as $18 per hour for high use users. They also schedule the time so that people are able to use what they need during their time without having to fight for space.
Overall it is exactly the early stage startup space a thriving industry needs. It allows ideas to materialize for relatively little costs. Plus some of the customers using the space show all the signs of impacting the food industry for years to come.