Happy Anniversary to SLC’s Square Kitchen!
Welcome to SLCgreen Connections, an occasional series highlighting SLCgreen’s fantastic local partners—the people and organizations with whom we work closely to make Salt Lake City a greener, more vibrant, and sustainable city!
Can you believe it? It’s been over a year since Salt Lake City’s Square Kitchen opened. This labor of love took 8 years to fully realize and was one of our Department’s core Local Food access programs.
In that time, Square Kitchen’s Analia Valdemoros and Tham Soekotjo have truly taken the idea of an “incubator kitchen” from a dream to a thrilling reality while maintaining a strong focus on client support, flexibility, and creativity.
We met with Ana and Tham at the Square Kitchen facility on 751 West and 800 South to learn more about their first year of operation and take a peek at some of the local food businesses that got their start at the unique incubator space.
Supporting Local Food with Culinary Incubator Kitchens
Square Kitchen is a beautiful open warehouse with commercial cooking spaces and storage areas. The front of the space is big enough to facilitate loading and unloading of several different food trucks. Over the course of our visit to Square Kitchen, the owners of Buzzed Coffee Truck, Raclette Machine, and several other clients of Square Kitchen bustled in and out with delicious ingredients ready for the day.
Square Kitchen got its start thanks to Salt Lake City’s dedication to various local food programs that make healthy and sustainable food more accessible to our communities. In 2010, SLCgreen’s Food Policy Task Force investigated the need for additional kitchen accelerators in Salt Lake City.
According to the 2013 Culinary Kitchen Business Incubator Study, “Salt Lake City’s metropolitan geographic location, a robust transportation network, a large workforce, central wholesale distribution, technology infrastructure, farmers markets, local restaurants, markets and cafes, an overall strong local business economy and a diverse population are all benefits to supporting a culinary business incubator kitchen.”
Ana emphasized the purpose of a kitchen incubator is more than just giving new businesses a kitchen space:
Square Kitchen is a commercial kitchen, but it’s also an incubator kitchen. The goal as an incubator is that businesses are successful here, then they outgrow Square Kitchen.
Ana added that Square Kitchen provides an affordable space and support for businesses who attend public markets. “We connect them to other businesses so they can sell their products. We connect them with funding resources — there are a lot of nice nonprofits that can help them, and the City. We have an in-house attorney that can help with legal advice. . . We have access to graphic designers who are willing to give free time to meet with the clients to help. And food photography, as well. So that’s how we incubate them.”
Tham and Ana are quick to enthusiastically recognize the importance of the City’s support of Square Kitchen, specifically:
- A $250,000 Sustainability Department grant
- $100,000 from the City Council
- A $25,000 façade grant from Housing and Neighborhood Development
- $25,000 for a fire hydrant
- And a $250,000 loan from the Sustainability Department
Tham and Ana said: “We want to highlight our supporters. We’re super thankful for the sustainability [department], Bridget, Debbie, Vicki, Sophia. Everybody. They’ve been super supportive. It’s been a City dream for a long time. We’re achieving it! It’s super cool they were able to give the seed money.”
[Aw… thanks guys! We appreciate you too. And you truly are the changemakers here!]
Thanks to these funds and Ana and Tham’s tremendous leadership abilities, the Square Kitchen became a fully realized kitchen incubator.
A Year In Review
Ana and Tham know the Square Kitchen inside and out. During our interview, it became clear how busy the two have been with their clients. Indeed, Over the course of the last 12 months, Square Kitchen grew from 9 clients to 50. Ana remarked that the first year was packed with activity: “We’ve been able to host different events: pop up markets, educational events, trainings, social events, weddings, birthday parties. We’ve had a lot of things going on throughout the year – faster than we thought!”
Excitedly, Ana added that there have been many success stories. One example is Wasatch Nectar. Tham and Ana highlighted the ingenious concept of the business: local honey infused with electrolytes. Developed by a local nutritionist who wanted to sell her electrolyte honey at Salt Lake’s farmers markets, Wasatch Nectar quickly outgrew the local scene. Ana proudly adds that “She was able to sign up with CVS, nationally… in a matter of 6 months!”
But Wasatch Nectar is staying connected to the Square Kitchen. Tham gave provided an epilogue of sorts to Wasatch Nectar’s story, saying that “[Wasatch Nectar] still wants to use the kitchen to test recipes and do the mason jars. But now [it’s] also working with a whole packer.” Tham and Ana agree that Wasatch Nectar is “inspirational for us.”
Wasatch Nectar is just one of several success stories. Indeed, Ana highlighted another example; one that demonstrates the industriousness and creativity of Square Kitchen and its clients.
Hello! Bulk Markets started in Square Kitchen last year. Ana explains:
When you start a small business, sometimes things shift. You envision your business in a certain way, but then opportunities arise and you have to be adaptable.
Hello! Bulk Market’s owner started with the goal of providing affordable bulk products. The store emphasizes a zero-waste approach. Ana notes that the Hello! Bulk Market owner “originally she thought she would be using a warehouse to store her products. Quickly, she realized a lot of people were showing up with their plastic or glass containers to be filled with [things like] rice or flour or olive oil or shampoo or dish detergent.” Tham remarks that Hello! Bulk Markets was simply turning into the Square Kitchen’s own grocery shop.
After a year, Hello! Bulk Markets moved into it’s own storefront on in Salt Lake’s west side. Ana told us that Hello! Bulk was able to “find an awesome retail shop in a building built by another awesome group called GIV. She outgrew our facilities. She needed a bigger space and somewhat different concept. We’re super excited for her!”
Square Kitchen helps businesses of all sizes thrive. For example, the Fuego Grill food truck was able to launch it’s own restaurant, Santo Tacos on 900 West and 1000 North. Ana pointed out that “they outgrew our kitchen. And that’s the point of an incubator kitchen.”
Other success stories include Z Nectar, which sells ginger, hibiscus, and lime drinks based on Caribbean recipes, and Streusel, a bakery which sells their baked goods to numerous coffee shops, food trucks, and Caputos. Ana adds that one of the most popular food trucks from Square Kitchen is the Raclette Machine. “They started as a vendor at the farmers market. Now they have their food truck, so they’re cooking here!” Finally, Ana adds Han’s Kombucha to the list. After only a few months, “Han’s Kombucha is in 4 or 5 stores already” and has its own tap room.
Square Kitchen grew quickly, and as a result, Ana and Tham have had to adapt to their client’s needs. Tham stressed the importance of staying flexible:
We’re very open. Ana and I came up with different ideas and phases [at the beginning]. But ultimately what really drives the priorities are the clients. The place is very organic and fluid.
Ana notes that the Square Kitchen is still in Phase I of development: “We thought we could start in on Phase II this year, but it’s going to have to be next year. We’re trying to build the capacity for people who want to use the front space of the building to get people here for the pop-up markets that we have, and then build the name recognition so that next year we can actually invest in their retail shops.” After that, Ana and Tham can start renting the front space out to their clients for even more events.
Indeed, Ana told us to get ready: “this year there will be a lot of events and more pop-up markets.” There was even a Sunday Fair this spring. Although Ana and Tham do not teach any classes at the space, “people rent the space to offer classes to the public.” For example, the Brazilian Arts Center taught a Brazilian cooking class at the Kitchen, and there will be other classes hosted in the space later this year.
Ultimately, Ana points out that the Square Kitchen is “very grassroots. It’s very warehouse-y, as well. We have a lot of room for people, so it fits with a lot of nonprofits and other groups.”
Help Square Kitchen Keep Growing
Even if you aren’t planning to start your own food business, there are many ways to support the Square Kitchen and stay up to date with their events.
Ana is planning on making additions to their website, saying that “throughout the summer, we’ll highlight the businesses that have had success stories. We’ll add a list of our clients and their menus so that people can support them, because if people support them, they support us! We’d love for people to do their catering through any of our businesses here.”
There will also be opportunities to volunteer and be more involved with Square Kitchen’s pop-up markets.
Ana added that for restaurants who are changing their equipment, they always take donated commercial equipment! The Square Kitchen hosts several equipment swaps each year!