At any given moment, the entrepreneurs who rent prep space in the shared commercial kitchen at Upstart Kitchen, 4323 W. Fond du Lac Ave., could be making barbecue, Nigerian cuisine, liquor-infused ice cream, baked goods, potato chips or community meals.
In the 15 months since it opened, Upstart Kitchen maxed out with 40 tenants using the space 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The wait list for entrepreneurs, which sat at an impressive 75 names about a year ago, has ballooned to more than 220 names.
There was clearly a need for the shared space where folks in the Sherman Park community could turn passion for food into viable businesses. While it provides a needed commercial kitchen, what makes Upstart Kitchen so desirable for entrepreneurs is the help it provides in licensing, business planning, marketing, budgeting, hiring, financing and more.
“The kitchen is great, but it’s the other things,” said Mike Moeller, owner of Milwaukee Chip Co. “It’s running into other entrepreneurs and just having brainstorming sessions. It’s meeting with management, running them through my thought process that I use, and then having them guide me in a better direction based on their experience or expertise. I’m able to tap into a lot of thinking here, both from other entrepreneurs, and from some very seasoned industry veterans that they have here in management.
“Upstart has built this environment of collaboration and sharing. There’s something special about the environment that they’ve built here.”
The idea for Upstart Kitchen — and by extension Prism, which operates Upstart — grew out of conversations among community leaders after the civil disturbances in the Sherman Park neighborhood in 2016. Led by Bishop Walter F. Harvey at Parklawn Assembly of God, the group looked to be more involved in the community and find ways to respond to the challenges their neighbors faced. They settled on providing a shared space that could help launch businesses and create entrepreneurs.
Before he got to work on a recent batch of potato chips, Moeller, who recently bought his own production plant near North 76th Street and West Bradley Road, asked logistical questions about sinks, fryers and oil, and discussed business ideas with chef Michael Feker. The veteran chef (Il Mito in Wauwatosa, Americas in Delafield, Zesti in Hartland) serves as a consultant and mentor for Upstart’s food entrepreneurs.
As soon as he found out what Upstart was doing, Feker wanted to get involved to share his 30-plus years of culinary experience, almost all in Milwaukee.
“I learned from my father that we are teachers at our best. I believe I have reached a point in my life that I can share what I have experienced and what I’ve put together in the world of food,” Feker said. “This community has fed me in many ways. I am not the man that I am if it wasn’t because of this community, so the least I can do is to give back to the community in the way that feeds my soul, anyway. I love to cook, so why not share it?”
Feker’s philosophy of learning and sharing fits the community and communal ideology that fuels Upstart Kitchen. At a recent meeting of tenants, Ariam Kesete, a local real estate developer who is vice president at Prism, encouraged the business owners to share their strengths and work together to bolster their weaknesses.
Tenants talked about what they would make for community meals, Upstart’s newest and biggest venture.
They had been preparing some community meals since the start of the pandemic, but in May 2021, the business owners at Upstart Kitchen took over the community meals program started by Caitlin Cullen, owner of the late Tandem restaurant. Now they are preparing about 8,000 meals a month for local organizations and churches that serve families facing food insecurity and are compensated for their work.
“It has really become not only a way of continually serving the community, but it’s a way of really empowering our entrepreneurs, giving them experience and helping them generate some revenue,” said Leo Ries, interim director of Prism, which is the Sherman Park neighborhood economic development corporation.
Cullen closed her restaurant in summer. Through donations, the Tandem, 1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., had given away 115,000 meals to people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learning to plan, shop for and prepare meals at the scale needed for the community meals program has helped Tomira White, owner of Delicious Bites, understand how to scale up her operation. That will be helpful as she opens her first retail space in Wauwatosa in January. The space does not have a commercial kitchen, and White will still use Upstart’s prep kitchens for most of her mixing and baking.
Expanding their reach
With Upstart Kitchen operating at capacity, the Prism board wants to expand its reach. Through Kesete’s connections, Prism and Upstart Kitchen have contracted with Shular Institute of Atlanta to begin a culinary education program that will work out of the kitchens at Parklawn Assembly of God church.
“We’re raising the money and then we contract with them to provide the educational programming that makes sense. We’re providing the space and the administrative support,” said Ries.
While Shular offers different levels of training, the culinary training program through Prism will be twofold. There will be ServSafe training, knife skills classes and training in dishwashing and cleaning. Importantly, said Kesete, the Shular Institute provides the right support systems. The process helps set up the students with the right mindset for the service industry and hospitality.
The community meals program has shown that the need for culinary labor in Milwaukee is not limited to entrepreneurs or restaurants. The health care sector presents a major opportunity for involvement, employment and growth, said Ries.
“The culinary training program is going to be a major new initiative for us. We see this as kind of creating an ecosystem of food-related initiatives,” Ries said.
The training program is a big step coming at the right time, Feker said. The idea isn’t to teach specific recipes but to give students the knowledge and skills that will allow them to work in any kitchen. People who are passionate about food aren’t just wanted, they are needed in Milwaukee’s culinary world, he said.
“If you really want to get involved in the world of food and you want to understand what the steps are, this is a great place to start,” Feker said. “We are trying to link all of these organizations and programs together, because ultimately it is about the growth of Milwaukee. This is our home. Let’s stick together and let’s make it grow.”
On the job learning
Upstart’s business owners and entrepreneurs say they are constantly learning as they go — from their mentors, from the Prism board and from their fellow business owners.
But Ries said the learning goes both ways. One reason for Upstart’s success is that Ries and Kesete know their strengths and weaknesses. Neither has any culinary experience, which is where Chef Feker comes in.
They all have a role, and they are willing to learn and evolve. Ries, Kesete and the rest of the staff are constantly taking in information and data and reacting.
Being able to change course or rethink an approach has been crucial to the project’s success. They don’t always know exactly what the future will hold for Upstart Kitchen, Prism or the entrepreneurs, but they hope to see more successes like Moeller, of Milwaukee Chip Co., and White, of Delicious Bites.
“We’ve only been really at this for a year and a half,” Ries said. “Over time, what we would hope to see is some of our entrepreneurs evolve and grow their business and eventually leave the nest and start their own production facility or their own retail facility.
“We hope to actually see people evolve in their business acumen and then move on to bigger and better things. We (hope that we can) create a pipeline so that we can start to take on additional people and to start them out.”
Nicole Haase is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and photographer.