Lofty dreams can be a beautiful promise of what lies ahead. The fact that they don’t hold us accountable makes them particularly attractive. Years ago before I signed up for culinary school, I envisioned my future self floating through a shiny kitchen that resembled an ad out of Architectural Digest. The thought of spending hours on end producing chocolates and candies evoked in me the kind of bliss that most people experience when they fall in love and don’t wan’t to face the laws of reason. While I was passionate about my craft, I never seriously contemplated the nitty-gritty details of life as a food entrepreneur.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I decided to start my own chocolate and dessert business: SWEET55. My previous careers in teaching and journalism had certainly strengthened my resilience, attention to detail and focus - all handy attributes for a chocolatier. But there was one challenge that I was not at all prepared for, and it had nothing to do with making ganache or whether my cookies should be baked at 325 or 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It was finding my own commercial kitchen.
Specifically, it was the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. Months of surgical searching did not yield any results. Kitchens were either not available or way beyond my budget. It finally made me realize that I was searching for a needle in a haystack. Luckily, I found a large shared pastry kitchen that I was able to rent on an hourly basis, but it required countless hours of loading and unloading my car and shuffling equipment back and forth between the new space and the small test kitchen in my own backyard. While the search for my own certified kitchen continued, the shared kitchen was a compromise I had to live with for almost three years.
Remember Rémy from the Disney movie Ratatouille? He wants to become a great chef, but there is one big hurdle: He is a rat. How will he ever get a job in a restaurant kitchen? Searching for my culinary kingdom evoked a sort of kinship with Rémy. There were hundreds, even thousands of ads offering office spaces for tech companies in Silicon Valley, but less than a handful offering kitchens. Why? Having become more acquainted with the intricacies of building a commercial kitchen, it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t surprising. In culinary terms, stacking a room with office furniture and some computers is equitable to . a piece of coffee cake. Building a professional kitchen, on the other hand, is more like a five-tier wedding cake. Electrical wires, gas lines, pipes and floor drains, refrigerators, freezers, dish washers, ovens, vents, cooktops, three-compartment sinks, hand sinks, janitorial sinks, walls, floors, ceilings, restrooms and even lockers for the staff’s shoes…every single detail has to be approved by an authority called the Department of Environmental Health. It is a maze of regulations that few can really understand. If this sounds daunting to you, then that’s because it is.
Back to the future, in which resilience and determination almost always pay off. Just remember the end of Ratatouille, when Rémy becomes a chef at his own bistro. Last fall, on the same day a seemingly done deal of sharing a warehouse kitchen with a colleague fell through, I decided to continue my search on Loop Net, the most heavily trafficked commercial real estate marketplace online….and there, I finally found the jewel I’d spent 34 long months looking for. Soon after I signed the lease, which even came with a retail option.
After the fact, it all seemed fairly easy. While we are still months from moving in - the array of construction rules and regulations remains intimidating - the reality of starting in my own commercial space is much better than the lofty dream from years ago. The kitchen may not look like an ad from Architectural Digest - but perhaps our small chocolate store will.