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Largo commercial kitchen a haven for food entrepreneurs

Cindy Pickering's kitchen isn't like yours. ¶ Instead of one oven, there are five. Instead of one sink, there are nine. The exhaust hood is so big construction crews cut a hole in the ceiling to install it. ¶ There aren't any family photos on the walls, no artwork pinned to the fridge. ¶ There is a radio. ¶ Pickering, 52, likes it like this. So do the other 60 foodies who flock to her place every month.

They, like Pickering, are entrepreneurs. And 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they show up to her place — called Your Pro Kitchen — to bake, cook and sell food.

There's no other commercial kitchen like it in Florida.

Still, the woman behind this place says it's more than a shared kitchen. More than just 3,500 square feet of space. To Pickering, this is a culinary incubator.

"All these people would not be in business if it wasn't for this place," she said.

• • •

Starting a food business in Florida can be confusing — and expensive.

If you plan to sell food to the public, state law says that it must be prepared in a certified commercial kitchen. (The state recently relaxed the requirement on some foods).

At Your Pro Kitchen, Pickering helps food entrepreneurs jump into the industry without the overhead that would come with operating their own kitchen. Instead, they rent out time at her already-licensed kitchen. She also walks them through the permitting process.

Initial startup cost to become a legal food business? Less than $1,000.

"She does a fantastic job running the place," said Bruce Farley, a food safety inspector for the state Department of Agriculture. "She does a lot of our work for us, that's why we like her."

Farley visits the kitchen often. Almost every week, he said, a new business is getting permitted. Last week it was three.

"It's a great idea," Farley said. "I guess nobody had thought of it before."

• • •

Pickering stumbled on the idea by accident.

In 2003, she was just getting her business off the ground, making her signature salsa out of her home kitchen.

Things went well — until a neighbor turned her into the food police. They didn't like the produce trucks coming down the street at 4 a.m.

Authorities told Pickering what she was doing was illegal. In Florida, you can't make or sell salsa out of your home. You need a permit and a certified kitchen.

"It turned out to be a blessing," said Pickering. "It happened for a reason."

Using the equity from her home, Pickering found a spot in a Brandon strip mall, designed a commercial kitchen, got it certified and herself a state license — and kept selling her salsa. She was successful, selling wholesale to Beef 'O' Brady's restaurants.

Meanwhile, she often ran into entrepreneurs wanting to jump into the food business. But they lacked a commercial kitchen or the money to pay for one.

"Many places, like bakeries and church kitchens, allow you to rent space here and there, but you have to work around their schedule," Pickering said. "They were struggling."

After a little research, Pickering realized there was no shared commercial kitchen in Tampa Bay dedicated just to burgeoning food entrepreneurs.

"I thought to myself, that's a business," she said. "I know it may sound silly, but I believe in paying it forward. I want to make it easier for other people than it was for me."

In August 2008, Pickering sold her salsa business. The next month, she signed a lease for a space off U.S. 19 in Largo.

She installed a 9-foot-long hood, several ovens, drying racks, tables, refrigerators, freezers and mixers.

She signed up her first business a few months later.

• • •

These days, about 60 companies operate out of Your Pro Kitchen. Owners drive from St. Petersburg, Gainesville, Dunedin, Sarasota, Naples, Tampa, Fort Myers. Some are seasoned pros and trained chefs. Others are rookies trying to make it with family recipes.

Pickering says she still has room for more.

The kitchen is never closed, and people schedule when they want to use it, though they must commit to at least eight hours a month to maintain their permit.

Pickering also makes them sign a lease for at least six months. She wants to make sure people are serious about starting a business.

"The economy has really helped me, in a roundabout way," she said. "A lot of people, they come in here and they've lost a job. Their faith in corporate America is gone."

On a recent day, about 10 small food businesses worked from the kitchen at the same time.

There was Casey's Cookies, a nonprofit that puts disabled adults to work baking and selling cookies; Paulie O's Italian Gourmet, run by a Safety Harbor couple with a family recipe for meatballs and sausage; and Joey Biscotti, a custom pastry business run by a pair of guys from Tampa.

With the radio kicking out rock tunes in the background, the food entrepreneurs churned out their special recipes, working around each other with ease.

In one corner, Karen Jaeger of Tampa followed her grandmother's recipe for granola. She sells it in local health food stores.

"I decided, what the heck, I worked, raised my four boys. Why not follow my passion?" Jaeger, 55, said.

In the next space, a husband-and-wife catering team prepped food for an upcoming gig. After working more than 20 years from a Dunedin storefront, Michael and Doris Leonardo knew they had to make a change. The faltering economy and higher food prices made it harder to justify the high overhead cost of maintaining a commercial kitchen.

"The writing was on the wall," said Michael Leonardo, owner of Quintessence Catering. "It was almost like divine intervention."

As he worked, a bell rang, signaling someone had walked through the kitchen's front door. A young couple walked in and sat at Pickering's desk.

They wanted to start a cupcake business.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Largo commercial kitchen a haven for food entrepreneurs 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 10:40pm]
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