Kitchen Aides: How the Next Generation of Collaborative Spaces May Save Food Culture

Whether the Alice Collective, BiteUnite, or Forage Kitchen call themselves 'incubators' or not, they're making a once-opaque domain hospitable to newcomers.

In 1872, there were fewer Californians altogether than there are people in San Francisco today. It was the year America created its first national park, Yellowstone, mostly found in the Wyoming Territory, which had about the same population that Oakland did: 10,000 people. The Transcontinental Railroad had been running trains for only three years, and Lake Merritt was but a tidal lagoon. The frontier was still open and the West was not yet “won,” but a small, symmetrical building with two floors and a mezzanine level went up on 14th Street in Downtown Oakland, and there it remains today.

For a long time, it was the home of the Holmes Book Company, which opened in the 1890s and lasted until 1995, allegedly with two ghosts. Later, it housed a textile company called Silk Road. But since around 2000 or so, it lay there, dormant.

“There was this nasty billboard outside protecting this beautiful facade, and I fell in love with the floor as soon as I walked in — with these beautiful, doug fir 1920s floors,” says Ted Wilson, whose cafe, catering company, event space, and communal kitchen now inhabit the building. “It was before the patio got done, before things were sheetrocked and looking nice and pretty. The floor absolutely just grabbed me.”

The 1872 building has, as they say, good bones. There are also iron pillars, an Art Deco gate, and a freight elevator to the basement that opens onto the street. Wilson called his project the Alice Collective, a fitting name for a food business with literary history. It’s not named for Alice Waters but nearby Alice Street.

“We were going to name it ‘The Alice,’ but there’s already a radio station,” Wilson says.

A veteran entrepreneur, he had opened Fine & Rare in the space at 555 Golden Gate Ave. in San Francisco several years prior. (That address had once been home to Alice Waters’ former business partner Jeremiah Tower’s restaurant Stars.) Later, he helped open The Hall, a designed-to-be-temporary food hall and retail spot on Market Street that has since closed to make way to new condo construction. An even more hybrid animal, the Alice Collective builds off its forebears’ attributes to become something wholly new — and when it opened in late summer, it already had a full Type 47 liquor license plus a Type 58 catering permit, allowing the 7,000-square-foot space greater usability.

“It takes in a lot of my past experiences in the Bay Area, from the Hall to Off the Grid to our last iteration at Fine & Rare,” Wilson says. “We fell in love with this idea of working with other food businesses and creating this space that can be very fluid, from a cafe to a venue and an event space with a full bar.”

Just don’t call it an incubator.

“I have a little resistance to the word ‘incubator,’ ” says Wilson, who tentatively refers to himself as the Alice Collective’s head of business development. “I don’t want to grow people’s businesses with them. They know their business better than I do, and I’ve got our own businesses to grow. I want to provide space for people to grow their businesses in.”

The rear of the Alice Collective, with the patio beyond. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Anthony Bourdain described the kitchen of the first restaurant he worked in, on Cape Cod, as a place of total masculine swagger. At a time when “the parsley sprig and the lemon wedge were state-of-the-art garnishes,” the line cooks and underlings at the Dreadnought in Provincetown, Mass., measured their standing in scars and burns. Ugly hands were their currency. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain describes one crew from a Southern Italian restaurant that butchered veal legs in-house as the “loudest, crudest, most badass bunch of cookies in town.” They were guys who spoke in their own barely comprehensible slang, like the language that twins teach each other — if those twins were also insult comics who spoke the argot of colonial America.

Virtually no one cared about terroir back then, and almost no one had ever heard of arugula. Bourdain’s account of that profane, prelapsarian time is simultaneously non-credible and 100-percent believable, and if we accept that he was as fallible as the rest of us and his memory couldn’t help but embellish a few details, it’s probably true in spirit. Decades later, restaurant kitchens remain regrettably male-dominated spaces; just ask women who worked under Mario Batali or Ken Friedman or Charlie Hallowell. At the same time, diners’ ever-greater sophistication has brought a previously unimaginable degree of transparency to that once opaque domain. Many kitchens at the highest levels are open now, sometimes radically so, as you find at Lazy Bear or Saison.

But as the underlying economics of dining push almost everything into two categories — fast-casual or ultra-luxe — some entrepreneurs have taken to reinventing the kitchen altogether. Rather than places of ostentatious aggression and an almost performative manliness, they’re egalitarian sites of collaboration where diners may even be invited in. Ten years after the Great Recession drove tens of thousands of newly unemployed Americans to go into business for themselves, the tug of self-employment remains strong. But even culinary geniuses with brilliant ideas need assistance with the basics: invoices, purveyors, recipe feedback, the dreaded task of scrubbing pots and pans. As the costs of opening a restaurant grow exponentially, a new breed of incubator spaces has emerged to keep things dynamic, making it possible for people to turn daydreams into day-jobs.

The word “incubator” is, on the merits, pretty lifeless — even as it suggests something teeming with life, if of an undesirable, bacterial nature. Many proprietors don’t like the term at all. But they’re charging ahead, creating a middle ground between the ephemera of a pop-up and the terrifying and exorbitant commitment of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. In doing so, they’re helping to launch careers and keep the Bay Area’s food culture firmly rooted against the centripetal force of displacement.

Baker Andrew Schiff, owner of Oak and Fig Baking, holds a ginger cake with bourbon buttercream frosting in one of the cooking areas at Alice Collective in Oakland on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume)

Andrew Schiff of Oak & Fig Baking produces all the baked goods for the Alice Collective’s cafe from its basement. Pop in for lunch, and you’ll see a mobile counter up front with his hand pies and seasonal tarts, with another worker dedicated to items like a flank steak baguette or chicken curry naan. Over on one side is a Red Bay Coffee station, while the cusp-of-grown-in patio is a lush outdoor space with well-chosen sculptures.

By trade, Schiff is technically a cake-maker. It’s his second trade, though. He learned pastry in college, and after a career in menswear at “most of the big brands you would recognize,” he apprenticed in Minneapolis under the acclaimed baker John Krause, working for minimum wage to become a specialty-cake designer. Eventually relocating to the Bay Area, Oak & Fig started out at Uptown Oakland’s Forage Kitchen, a project by Iso Rabins and Matt Johansen that grew out of Rabins’ earlier projects ForageSF and Underground Market (whose semi-legal events and foodie-maker collaborations the San Francisco health department eventually shut down).

“I had outgrown Forage, so I’m less of a fledgling incubator business and more of a pro who started his own thing,” Schiff says. “Ted offered me the sweetest deal, which was to sell pastries upstairs at the cafe. So for the first time, I was offered a retail outlet for my work.”

A Downtown Oakland resident, Schiff is glad to have a workspace in the neighborhood, and plans to keep his one-person operation in the basement kitchen space for at least another year, alongside businesses like Good to Eat Dumping and another tenant tentatively set to open early next year.

Wilson admits he’s very picky about who he’ll work with. His goal for the Alice Collective is to get new people to grow their businesses independently but on-site, with entrepreneurs paying rent based on how many employees they have working out of the space, how much storage and refrigeration they need, and the like. The better they do, the more rent they pay. Once you have seven to 10 people four days a week, Wilson says, your dumplings or pastries or pickles probably have enough of a following that your project is ready for its own brick-and-mortar.

“Get out of my basement,” Wilson says, chiding some hypothetical future food business. “Our goal is to get you to where you max your space and we max out our ability to give you space.”

This sounds less like a business and more like a nonprofit, a suggestion Wilson only mildly disputes. The bar and the event space and the catering company aren’t nonprofits, he says, and if the cafe and the commissary don’t pencil out every month, they still subsidize everything else. If the Alice Collective’s community-kitchen program only breaks even, it’s still in line with the wishes of the landlord, who had originally wanted a gallery and space dedicated to artists and makers. But artisans couldn’t swing the rent — let it be said definitively that Oakland is not a handy Plan B for anyone priced out of San Francisco — so she approached Wilson.

First Friday at Forage Kitchen in Oakland, Calif., Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
Photo by Alison Yin/Alison Yin Photography

“What’s the next best thing?” he asks, rhetorically. “Food! I said, ‘I’d like to put two to four other businesses in the basement and sublease out.’ She said, ‘Great, that gives me the feeling of supporting community and keeping makers and producers in the neighborhood, which is my core goal, but at the same time you’re not a restaurant with a high risk that you’re going to fail.’ There’s risk for sure, but I’m good with risk. It’s a real calculated risk.”

His arm’s-length approach developed out of his previous projects, which taught him that “the more rules you have about the kitchen and about each other’s businesses, the better.” That goes for using the space responsibly, cleaning up after work stations and adhering to the health codes. Further, rules can keep a project focused, preventing it implosion under the weight of its own grandiosity. No one wants to emulate Grand Fare Market, that highfalutin grocery elsewhere in Oakland that collapsed not once but twice.

Structure can also be a matter of sanity. At The Hall, newer entrepreneurs might not have wanted to open their individual stands five days a week, every week, but the overall project wouldn’t have endured as long as it did with individual owner-operators working erratic hours.

“I don’t want to know about your cash flow, about your employee disputes, about your struggles. I can’t do it, nor should anybody do it,” Wilson says. “So I think I’m really trying to push back on the incubator and change that word to a ‘community kitchen space.’ ”

He claims to be done with traditional restaurants — or mostly, anyway. Wilson is also the new owner of the 141-year-old William Tell House in Tomales, billed as Marin’s oldest saloon. Destined to reopen in the spring, the Tell might best be described as a bar that has a patio and a fast-casual counter. But the underlying economics of restaurants may no longer apply like they once did.

“It just doesn’t make sense anymore. The percentages of being a successful classic box restaurant are very hard, and there’s so many of them,” Wilson says, adding, “I’m not the hot flashy thing.”

Fair point, but isn’t the idea of a community kitchen space indisputably, well, trendy?

“I think it’s a trend in the sense that real estate is very expensive, and we need to offset our costs,” he concedes.

In other words, banding together is done out of necessity, not only to wring the most value out of square footage, but out of the graveyard shift as well. A mentor had convinced Wilson of the value of reducing liability and maximizing exposure, and he’s taking things an inch further in the save-the-world direction, a characterization whose minor hubris Wilson might bristle at. But the Alice Collective is about keeping a central city lively and desirable in an era when even successful, long-running venues like SoMa’s are forced to make way for office space.

“I’m not gouging people,” Wilson says. “I still have a strong belief that cities need food companies. We can’t all be huge restaurateurs and have massive empires and let one project fail and we still have five others that are banging down on Embarcadero. So for us, I want those people to stay in cities. I want us to stay in Oakland and in San Francisco. If the people that are here at the Alice Collective would have to go to Hayward or Castro Valley or Lafayette, that’s not good for a city. You’re kind of ripping our soul out real slowly, and that sucks.

“We’re not doing poke bowls here,” he adds. “I would call that a trend.”

Having soft-opened a little after the Burners returned from the desert, the Alice Collective is home to Wilson’s catering company, Metal and Mattress — which basically imported the Fine & Rare team in toto — plus Good to Eat Dumpling, Red Bay Coffee, Oak & Fig. There were around 12 people at the start, including a chef de cuisine, a sous chef, prep cooks, and a cafe manager. It’s a team that allows Wilson to “chase butterflies,” he says.

And collaboration is in its marrow.

“These kitchen teams become like a mind meld,” Wilson says. “We’re going to be influenced by a lot of people. You get stale when you’re in a box by yourself.”

His goal is for a year from now to host eight events per month, from all-day conferences to openings with 200 people. Everything on the main floor is on casters for flexible rearranging. Upstairs, Wilson has what he calls “dream building occupants” — which is to say, they are not his tenants. Oakstop is a sort of “community-based WeWork platform” that rents out its mezzanines and loft spaces to arts organizations for board meetings, and their coexistence gives the Alice Collective the ability to rent out the entire building. The more efficient they are, the better they can navigate the headwinds of capitalism, which would just as soon annihilate everything and turn it into open-plan offices for evanescent startups whose ultimate goal is acquisition, or annihilation by another name.

Photo by Tanarak Visessonchoke

For Patta Arkaresvimun, founder of the Mission co-working kitchen and cafe BiteUnite, chefs’ ability to offer and receive constructive criticism is among the project’s most important attributes.

“You’re able to grab people here, they have a coffee, they can taste it and give you the feedback right away,” she says. “That’s important for someone who just started. If you’re working somewhere and nobody sees you, it can be hard to get feedback.”

Like writing, cooking can be a solitary pursuit, and if people work from home — or rent space in a commissary kitchen in the Bayview — it can be hard to solicit objective opinions while something is fresh and hot. And since Instagram is now free advertising, getting tasty treats in front of people is the surest way to develop a following.

“You can’t be taking photos if you’re really going to cook,” Arkaresvimun says.

She opened the first BiteUnite in Hong Kong, creating an online platform for people to book the workspace efficiently. Up to four independently operating chefs can reserve as much room as they need, incorporating a communal table if they want to throw, say, a pop-up dinner party for 12 with a dedicated staffer to wash the dishes. It’s intended to help people with an idea start from nothing, without the added stress of having to borrow chairs from a neighbor and clean your bathroom sink. With natural light and a central location, it’s more inviting than most institutional kitchens. It’s a place where people will want to hang out, plus there’s a full cafe serving matcha and kombucha and the like.

Crucially, BiteUnite is accessible 24 hours a day and people can book a section of countertop or the entire space. That means if what they really need is less a satellite living room to entertain than a space to bake 800 cookies for a corporate drop-off, aspiring artisans can reserve time when they need it, rather than three days in advance while praying the cookies still taste fresh. In addition to standard kitchen equipment and a walk-in refrigerator, there are fun toys like a milkshake machine. It’s geared equally toward the headphones-in types for whom jam-making is a form of therapy to make a side income from, and extroverts with a flair for showmanship.

“Some people can cook really well, but to have a successful food business is a lot more than just cooking,” Arkaresvimun says. “You have to manage your inventory, do your marketing — you have to know your unique points. … We try to help them with logistics, ingredients, suppliers, marketing — and after a year, when they do pretty well, sometimes we link them with some investors.”

Like Wilson, Arkaresvimun dislikes the term “incubator.”

“I can’t say that we’re an incubator because we don’t have a full, six-month mentorship,” she says, obliquely referring to institutions like La Cocina, which has helped innumerable immigrant women start their own food businesses — and which shelters them from outside eyes until they’re ready. “But the benefit of a kitchen like this is that you can try everything from a cooking class to a pop-up to catering. At the beginning, everybody is trying to do everything, because they don’t know what they’re good at. After a year, they know.”

Arkaresvimun decided to expand to San Francisco because of its entrepreneurial spirit and culinary diversity. A Thai native who’s lived in Singapore and France, she’s convinced that certain cultures are less hospitable to risk-taking in the kitchen. Some Italian dishes, for instance, are made a certain way and there is simply no messing with the thousand-year-old formula, end of discussion.

“A concept like this, you would not do in Japan,” Arkaresvimun says. “Everyone else will be Japanese, so you will only have Japanese events. Here, you will have Thai, Italian, French, Africans, Mexicans, and everything. That’s the beauty of San Francisco, to be able to taste from a real person.”

“Forage Kitchen is not a place where anybody should stay forever,” cofounder Iso Rabins says. “James Wood from Smokin Woods BBQ was in the cafe for about a year, which I think was a nice amount of time. He really got on his feet as far as running a brick-and-mortar space and got a nice following, and now he can move onto his next adventure.”

Wood has: a space on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal that’s currently open on Sundays and Mondays. Along with Schiff, he’s the most recent graduate of what Rabins calls Forage Kitchen’s “pretty informal” incubator program, where the most structured task is helping people figure out all their permits. (After all, it still costs money to register a business with the city, even before you’ve produced a thing.) Beyond that, things get more tailored to a person’s specific needs, largely around branding and promotion. A woman who runs a meat-based pet food company had fretted about her messaging.

“She didn’t think she knew the right words to say to make people feel excited about her business,” Rabins says. “She didn’t want to put her face on the website, and I said, ‘No, that’s what people want: They want to meet the person!’ The things you say about the business are really just what you think. That passion, even if it’s not a sound bite, is what really draws people into what you’re doing.”

But mostly, Forage Kitchen is about de-terrorizing people. Many kitchens, as Bourdain wrote about, are scary places where most everyone’s fighting all the time, and everyone who isn’t chucking spatulas just keeps their head down until it’s time to clock out.

“A lot of the people in our space are people who don’t come from a food background, so our commercial kitchen is the first they’ve ever walked into,” Rabins says. “When I first walked into a shared kitchen, I didn’t come from professional kitchens, so I was trying to figure it out, and it’s really intimidating because you don’t know how to use any of the stuff and people are running around like crazy and a lot of times people aren’t super-generous with their time, because people are super-busy.”

In essence, what Rabins has created is the thing that he wanted when he was new on the scene: a place for people who are largely on the same bar pop-up circuit to seed one another’s success, try one another’s recipes, and everything is clean and organized and reservable online. His initial vision of a meat-curing room and a nap room never materialized, but he succeeded in creating a “porous space that the public could look into a lot.” Most kitchens, even open ones in restaurants, might as well have yellow caution tape keeping civilians at bay, but Forage Kitchen is so open, they serve large-scale meals in it.

“You come to our cafe and you can look back at everyone doing their thing,” he says, “or you can taste some of the food from the people who are cooking, and that allows people to take that baby step into it and realize, ‘Oh, this is reasonable. It’s not scary!’ It helps them think through what their experience would be in there.”

The real question, then, is why it has taken so long for this model to develop. Why weren’t people doing this 15 or 20 years ago, at the dawn of the restaurant renaissance? Schiff believes it’s that the culinary industry simply wasn’t ready. Maybe the muscled cooks Bourdain wrote about were gatekeepers in a very physical sense, brandishing their injuries to hound would-be interlopers out of their kitchens and intimidating them from starting their own.

“For its entire history it’s been so codified and closed,” Schiff says. “You have to cut your chops for years and years and years before you’re even able to move onto the line. It’s all so mystical and fabulous and expensive. But it’s really not: Cooking is cooking, and I feel like more people have become interested in food on so many levels.”

It took decades to create a viable alternative to that, with the Iso Rabinses of the world occasionally getting shut down for running afoul of the law. And even in 2018, Alameda County was still inflexibly enforcing anachronistic ordinances against well-respected pop-ups. But simply put, it took time for people to realize they could turn their ideas into reality with a little gumption and elbow grease. The rise of incubators and shared kitchen spaces was, in hindsight, almost inevitable.

“I don’t think there was that kind of access 20 years ago,” Schiff adds. “People who were being visionary were just doing it out of their home kitchens, which is illegal — and really fucking hard.”

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