Every weekday morning, Debbie Nibbs gets to the South Tampa kitchen she shares with dozens of other people at 5:30 a.m.
She preps doughs, washes some dishes and makes icings before her food truck, Craving Donuts, opens at 7. She parks her bright pink trailer in a parking lot just a few steps from the kitchen doors and unveils a menu sporting doughnut flavors like French toast, rainbow cake, Meyer lemon and caramel bacon.
Nibbs does all of this at Your Pro Kitchen, a communal cooking and baking co-op she and other entrepreneurs have been using since it opened its doors almost two years ago. The South Tampa location is part of a bigger Brandon-bred company that rents out fully stocked, commercially licensed commissaries that act as a stepping-stone for culinary entrepreneurs.
Owner Cindy Pickering opened the first kitchen in 2008 after firsthand experience operating a small-scale salsa business. After learning that, to make her salsa, she was required by the state to own a certified commercial kitchen that met certain health safety regulations and regular inspections, she opened an 800-square-foot space in Brandon. Soon, it began to feel like she owned a second business.
"I'm making salsa and delivering salsa and building my salsa business, and I get a call from somebody in the kitchen: The plumbing's broke, or one of the ceiling tiles fell in, or the toilet backed up, or the electric went out on one side of the building," she said.
During that time, Pickering was approached by other market vendors who wondered if they should open their own kitchens. Her response?
"No way. Uh-uh."
She saw a need for entrepreneurs to be able to use a certified kitchen without owning their own, so she offered to let people use hers. That's where she got the idea for Your Pro Kitchen.
Businesses can lease time at eight different locations throughout Florida (including three in Tampa Bay), where they can cook, bake, prep, store and sanitize any time, any day. Some use the minimum eight hours a month; others use 150.
Pickering has worked with local companies like William Dean Chocolates and Joey Biscotti. Barry's Gourmet Brownies, one of her earlier clients, now operates a 20,000-square-foot facility in Clearwater and sells 500,000 brownies a day, to places like Starbucks.
The South Tampa location is run by 23-year catering vet Kristin Witts, who leases space to 16 local food trucks, including Empamamas, Surf and Turf and Spaddy's Coffee. Forty-seven other catering, baking and retail businesses prep at the kitchen as well, companies like Gulf Coast Sourdough, Hungry Monkey and Trixie Treats. Products like hot sauce, ice cream, cheesecake and coffee are sold at venues like Locale Market in St. Petersburg, Tampa International Airport and Williams-Sonoma at International Plaza.
Nibbs, who owns the doughnut food truck, and Stephanie Swanz, who started using Your Pro Kitchen to prep for her food truck Empamamas in February, say that Witts has become a big part of their success.
She knows the business well, and is able to guide people through the process of getting things started, from licensing to marketing. She walks her clients through the credentials process, offers space at the front of her building for tastings and classes and recruits volunteers from local culinary programs like the one at Northeast High School. Recently, she upgraded the kitchen's electrical system so that food trucks can plug into the building and rely less on their generators.
"[I] try to find as many things that I can so that it's all a one-stop shop here," Witts said. "The cost of running a licensed kitchen can be high, sometimes around thousands of dollars a month. For business owners just getting their feet wet, that expense can be daunting."
Nibbs thought opening a food truck was going to be a difficult process. But so far, she's happy with the results. She has partnered with UberEATS for doughnut delivery; on weekends she sells doughnuts at festivals and food truck rallies from Spring Hill to John's Pass. The former cake designer said that Witts has found a solution for every obstacle she has come across since opening the food truck earlier this year.
"[It's] to the point where now my husband says, 'Just ask Kristin,' " she said.
"You need people like that," she said. "People that want to help you in this business are hard to come across."
Contact Carlynn Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org.