Ben Slayton, right, and Matt Chappell of Harvest Maine make Beet and Carrot Spread at the new community kitchen at Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. To make its products, Harvest Maine uses seconds or vegetables that farms can’t sell because of blemishes. It is the community kitchen’s first tenant, and Slayton and Chappell have been using the space about 20 hours each week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Building out a commercial kitchen – whether to anchor a new restaurant, serve as the hub of a catering business, or produce a small line of foodstuffs destined for retail – doesn’t come cheap.

Commercial kitchen designer and gear supplier Avanti Restaurant Solutions estimates that prepping a 1,000-square-foot space with regulation electrical, fuel and water hookups can cost upwards of $15,000.  Outfitting it with eight-burner ranges, ventilation hoods, fire safety mechanisms, three-bay and handwashing sinks, dishwashers, walk-in coolers, industrial sized stand-mixers, tilt-skillets, dehydrators and blast chillers, can send the price into the realm of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s simply too big a chunk of change for most local food-focused start-ups to shoulder.

But what if the local food pantry recently acquired a building with a large commercial kitchen and is willing to share it, charging fees on a sliding scale based on how a business, nonprofit organization or community outreach program serves the food pantry’s underlying mission to fight food insecurity? With the help of the Merrymeeting Food Council (full disclosure, I serve on that group’s steering committee) and a grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick is piloting a community kitchen project like this in the 12,000-square foot building it recently acquired on Brunswick Landing.

Ben Slayton, right, and Matt Chappell make Beet and Carrot Spread at the new community kitchen at Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Other shared-use kitchens in Maine exist to help incubate food businesses. The most notable, as it is large and was able to weather pandemic economics, is Fork Food Lab in Portland. In this 5,000-square-foot shared kitchen (slated to move and expand into a kitchen seven times that size), companies like Empanada Club, Little Brother Chinese Foods, Mill Cove Crackers, Parlor Ice Cream, Plucked Fresh Salsa and Shovel and Spoon produce (or have produced) their products. The city of Bangor is working on a $4.3 million  project to construct a similar space. Sometimes, churches and community centers will rent out their commercial kitchens on an ad hoc basis. Nonetheless, finding affordable commercial kitchen space in Maine is not easy.

At its primary location on Union Street, Mid Coast food pantry volunteers and staff have prepared meals for patrons in a smaller commercial kitchen since 2003. Over time, the organization has been repeatedly approached by other nonprofit organizations needing to process gleaned fruits and vegetables, farmers looking to created value-added products and caterers needing space to prep for a big event, Deputy Director Hannah Chatalbash said.

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“It’s clear that the (shared kitchen spaces) that do exist, while providing a great service, didn’t have enough capacity to meet the need,” Chatalbash said. The hunger prevention program’s second facility, purchased last spring, is equipped with loading docks, which expand the program’s food storage capacity, as well as a commercial kitchen. But the program only needs the kitchen for 10-20 hours a week for soup kitchen prep. So the organization decided to offer the hours when it stood empty to food companies, farmers, community groups, and nonprofit organizations that offer cooking classes.

The goal is not to make money, but to help meet food-related needs in the community.

Matt Chappell heads out of the walk-in with vegetables for one of their spreads at the new community kitchen at Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program. Chappell’s company with his partner Ben Slayton, Harvest Maine, uses seconds, or vegetables that farms can’t sell because of superficial marks or damage to make their products. They are the community kitchen’s first tenant, and they use the space about 20 hours week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The kitchen is equipped with cold and dry storage, convection ovens, six-burner ranges, bakers’ ovens, tilt skillets, commercial dishwashers, food processors, blenders and tools including knives, cutting boards, measuring cups, graters and peelers, stock pots, strainer pots, roasting pans, fish tubs, sheet pans, speed racks and rolling carts. Supply chain issues have slowed the process of outfitting the kitchen with freezer space.

Chatalbash hired Brie Nicolaou to oversee and coordinate the community kitchen. In this pilot phase,  Nicolaou has recruited a food producer and worked with nonprofits to set up cooking classes. She’s also working with a community group that wants to process Maine wild blueberries, and talking to a local farmer who needs space to make sauces a couple times a year.

Chef Matt Chappell (formerly of Gather Restaurant in Yarmouth) and butcher Ben Slayton (formerly of Farmer’s Gate Market in Wales), are the first to use the kitchen to process food. The two, founders of Harvest Maine, a business aimed at stemming food waste, is using the community kitchen to make spreads from blemished, misshapen local produce.

“The spreads themselves are all about healthy, yummy snacking,” Chappell said. They include Broccomole (guacamole flavors using local broccoli and cauliflower instead of avocado); creamy, slightly spicy Celery Root and Red Pepper Spread; and bright but hearty Beet and Carrot Spread. Harvest Maine plans to roll out the spreads to Maine brewery tasting rooms in November and then to natural foods and specialty markets in January.

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Chappell was volunteering at MCHHP when he heard about the Community Kitchen rental option. The cost to rent, he said, is on par with other shared kitchens he looked into.

“MCHPP is expert in making sure food ends up in the hands of those that need it,” he said. “In our own small way, we are taking a market-based approach to the problem of food waste, and it feels good to be around others who share a common goal.”

Julia Child once said “There is nothing nicer than a kitchen really made for a cook. Things that are designed to be used always have an innate beauty.” She was talking about home kitchens, but the quote is apropos here. That’s because sharing a well-appointed kitchen with other cooks to fill a community need is a beautiful thing.

Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s Curried Carrot Coconut Soup Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s Curried Carrot Coconut Soup

This soup, typically made in 140-serving batches by Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program staff and volunteers in one of the organizations two commercial kitchens in Brunswick, is creamy, only slightly sweet and spicy, and vegan.

Serves 6-8

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2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
8 cups coarsely chopped carrots (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons curry powder
Salt
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
6 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons peanut butter
Chopped peanuts, for garnish
Chopped cilantro, for garnish

Add the oil to a large, heavy bottomed soup pot. Place the pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until they’ve have softened, 4-5 minutes. Add the carrots, curry powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and chili pepper flakes. Cook stirring for 2 minutes.

Add the broth and coconut milk. Simmer the mixture until the carrots soften, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the peanut butter. Puree the mixture in a blender until smooth. Add more salt to taste. Serve hot, garnished with the peanuts and cilantro.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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