The Communal Kitchen 

Entrepreneurs fulfill a need for low-cost cooking space.

Namie Shin describes herself as the kitchen bitch, and she's only half-kidding. For small entrepreneurs such as Shin — sharing kitchen space at an Emeryville facility called Co-Op Kitchens — a sharp tongue can be a strategy for getting through the day. Just as sharp elbows can guarantee access to communal stoves.

Shin is the owner of Namie's Kitchen, a small cafe set up in an Emeryville office lobby. But she does all her cooking in an off-site commercial kitchen space. She is one of approximately thirty tenants at Co-Op Kitchens, a maze of kitchens and storage rooms on Hollis Street where a diverse group of caterers, farmers'-market food vendors — even the owner of a small fleet of hot dog carts — do their cooking and food prep while coexisting more or less peacefully. Most are first-time business owners who deal with every part of their businesses themselves as they jostle for access to communal cooking equipment. They swap recipes and pool shopping duties — all under pressure to make it out through the loading yard in time for catering gigs and lunch setups.

The ten-year-old, 4,500-square-foot commercial kitchen runs according to the age-old rules of shared housing, where blasting Slayer or letting dirty dishes pile up in the sink can bring down the wrath of your roomies. In rare cases, it can even get you tossed.

Shin described how things go down when stuff goes missing. "I'll be like, 'Where is my knife? Where is my bag of broccoli?' There's a screaming match, and I put up a sign on the walk-in door, and then it's over." That's just how Co-Op Kitchens owner Jonas Bernstein likes things to get settled — tenants dealing with their own issues themselves.

"I'm not running a kindergarten here," Bernstein said. It's a weekday midmorning, and Dan Leff, a startup caterer who's one of Co-Op Kitchens' day renters, is grilling chicken breasts for a party later in the day. In a kitchen next door, half a dozen cooks stand at a double row of long tables, chopping at cutting boards or assembling food for delivery in disposable plastic containers. Prep cook Jesus Muro bolted from a prep table to the twelve-burner range, where he stirred a huge sauté pan of red cabbage before it burned. "Most of the individuals police themselves," says Bernstein, a former caterer himself. "If somebody makes a mess they'll communicate it. If it gets too big for them to deal with it, they'll come see me." Recently, a tenant who'd gotten into trouble for leaving behind pans of food ended up bolting, pulling up her van in the middle of the night and clearing out. "She'll have to live with her karma," Bernstein said.

In a baseball cap and shades he slips off when he starts talking, the 35-year-old landlord has retained a bit of kitchen swagger. A graduate of New York's Culinary Institute of America, Bernstein began leasing this space a decade ago with the intention of starting his own catering business. Little did he know the former jam-making facility wasn't up to health department codes. "Nine months of construction and $150,000 later, I was just shocked," he said. "When I was done with my construction, I had absolutely no money left to start my catering company." So he started recouping his buildout costs the only way he could: He signed up paying tenants.

The would-be caterer did eventually start his own company — All About Food — but burnout took its toll. "I worked for seven hard years and it was a grind," he said. In 2004, with his tenant base at critical mass, he extricated himself. A few months ago, after the owner of Co-Op Kitchens' building passed away, Bernstein snatched up the property. Now, the ex-chef splits his time between Co-Op Kitchens and a Mill Valley real-estate business he runs with his dad.

Even though he's a business guy sitting on a valuable chunk of Emeryville real estate, Bernstein talks about Co-Op Kitchens with the kind of altruistic zeal that wafts from nonprofits. "It was so hard for me to get started," he said. "I was like, what is it going to be for everyone else? That's when I said, alright — Co-Op Kitchens is now an incubator for small business."

Leased kitchen space affordable enough for the small operator has been hard to come by — until now. In June, Liane Ingham, owner of A Private Affair Catering, rolled out a brand-new shared facility in Richmond. And developer Joyce Sigman plans on building as many as five shared facilities in the Bay Area, with the first one slated to open in the fall of next year.

The oldest living local shared space may be San Francisco's Eclectic Cookery, a 5,000-square-foot facility that calls itself a "timeshare kitchen rental service" that opened in 1984. But there, all but one tenant vie for communal work areas. Bernstein pioneered the concept of regular monthly tenants having their own worktables, not to mention storage racks and even reach-in fridges — a cluster of businesses working on their own in more or less superheated proximity.

"It's really a co-op," said Katia Sabbah, owner of Zone San Francisco, a company that cooks and delivers meals that hew to the Zone diet. Earlier that morning, Sabbah had asked Shin's two prep cooks if she could borrow mustard. The exchange that followed — Shin's cooks complaining that she asked to borrow all the time — sounded like it came down somewhere between joking and actual squabbling.

In the end, Sabbah walked away triumphant, clutching a plastic container half-filled with grainy mustard. "We borrow from each other," she explained with a little shrug. "It's an ongoing thing."

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