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Opened in January, Amesbury’s Kitchen Local gives talented chefs and business owners a place to practice and produce their craft. 

Lisa sutton leans against a gleaming stainless steel worktable and looks around with a proud smile. She’s standing in the middle of a brand new, state-of-the-art, 1,200-square-foot commercial kitchen that’s housed in one of Amesbury’s revamped mill buildings. Despite its newness, Sutton feels at home. She is well accustomed to the idea of owning a kitchen that’s equipped with, among other things, a 30-quart floor mixer, a 24-quart electric steam kettle, a six-burner range and griddle, a double convection oven, and a walk-in refrigerator.

Still, there were times during construction that Sutton would find herself suddenly overcome with sweeping feelings of disbelief. “There were moments,” she remembers, “not when I doubted myself, but of just being awed by what I was doing.”

What Sutton was doing was building Kitchen Local, the first certified, shared-use commercial kitchen on the North Shore. It’s a business venture that’s not only good for its owner, but will help to give a much-needed boost to the North Shore’s local food economy.

Not every small food business has the means to build its own commercial kitchen. Shared-use kitchens allow chefs and bakers to share certified commercial kitchen space with other businesses on a set schedule. These “foodpreneurs” can sign up to use the kitchen when they need it, allowing them to cook or bake for hours at a time using large-scale commercial equipment. Kitchen Local also allows its clients to rent dry and cold storage space.

Shared-use commercial kitchens are more common in other parts of the country, but in Massachusetts, they’re rare. Before Kitchen Local opened in January, there were only a few shared-use kitchens in Massachusetts, and the nearest one to the North Shore was in Jamaica Plain. The lack of a shared-use kitchen was a gaping hole in the North Shore’s food economy, which is thriving in every other way, with an abundance of farms, farm stands, small-batch food producers, and other culinary businesses. So when Sutton started working in 2012 on Kitchen Local, she tapped into a groundswell of need.

“I had been looking for a space for over a year,” says Katie Habib, a caterer and personal chef who owns the Newburyport-based Habib’s Home Cooking. She needed one so badly that she’d been considering starting one herself. Although Habib has been a personal chef for more than 10 years, she’s been working up until now on a small, individual scale.

“I could not cook from my own kitchen,” Habib says. “I would have to go to my client’s home, pretty much take over their kitchen for the morning, prepare their meals, package them, and put them away. So I was carrying my equipment with me and stopping at the grocery store that morning because I didn’t have commercial storage space.” And she’d have to do the same thing for catering clients, too. “I would have to go to the client’s house the day before or the morning of—pretty much take over their kitchen the day of their party—and that’s a real inconvenience,” she says.

Kitchen Local's spacious facility
Kitchen Local’s spacious facility

There was also the question of scale. By cooking in each client’s home, Habib was only able to cook in small batches, creating each customer’s order one by one. So to say that having access to Kitchen Local is a game changer for Habib’s business is no exaggeration. She’s now able to serve many clients at once, spending a single morning cooking meals for seven or eight different families instead of just one family, for example.

Kitchen Local is also allowing her to extend her business into cooking classes and the Newburyport Farmer’s Market, where she’ll sell Lebanese cuisine like hummus, tabouli, spinach pie, and stuffed grape leaves. And for the first time, she can accept orders from multiple clients at once, like the orders she got the other day for 15 dozen grape leaves, seven dozen meat pies, and 10 dozen spinach pies. “I’ve never been able to market that way because I couldn’t cook and transport food before,” she says. “But now I can.”

Katie Habib of Habib's Home Cooking can prepare, cook, and package dishes at Kitchen Local.
Katie Habib of Habib’s Home Cooking can prepare, cook, and package dishes at Kitchen Local.

It’s a storyline that’s repeated among many of Kitchen Local’s first clients, including Lauren Suszczewicz, owner of Haverhill’s 19 Steps Bake Shop. The shop has been Suszczewicz’s part-time labor of love for the three years she’s been in business. By day, she sells computers, but by night, Suszczewicz bakes, making popovers, cookies, banana and zucchini breads, granola, brownies, and gift baskets to sell at local fairs and farmers markets. For the past three years, she’s grown her business slowly out of the certified kitchen in her home, but like most home kitchens, it’s small. Suszczewicz knew that if she wanted to expand, she’d need to find a new kitchen. “I’ve been wanting to take it to the next level, but I haven’t been able to find a place,” she says.

Like Habib, Suszczewicz says having access to Kitchen Local will give her the chance to dramatically expand her business practically overnight, which includes increasing her output. For instance, making her signature popovers at home yields only 12 per batch. But she can make 96 popovers per batch using the 30-quart mixer and double convection ovens at Kitchen Local. Now, Suszczewicz plans to get her wholesale commercial license, and she is fulfilling her dream to expand her business. “It’s going to be a reality,” she says. “It’s very exciting. Sometimes I feel like I have to pinch myself to make sure that it’s real.”

Donna McDonough, co-owner and co-founder of the Peabody-based Alex’s Whey, says cooking at Kitchen Local is giving her the same chance to expand her business. With a wholesale license, stores will be able to stock her company’s organic, all-natural protein cookies. “It will open me up into a whole different market that wasn’t open to me before,” she says. “I think it will help people have some of their dreams come true.”

While some local businesses are using Kitchen Local to expand, others, like Newburyport-based Fresh Beginnings, LLC, are using it to start. Fresh Beginnings, which makes 100 percent organic homemade frozen baby food for delivery to North Shore parents, is a brand new company; it just started taking orders in March.

“Since we’re a company that’s just starting out, we’re not at the place where we’ll need a full-time kitchen,” says co-owner Sara Calapiz. And Calapiz’s business partner, Tamea Bacon, says that without Kitchen Local there’d be no business at all. “Our biggest obstacle was finding a kitchen,” Bacon says. “There is nothing else like Kitchen Local anywhere near here that would have been an option for us…we wouldn’t have been able to do it without [the] kitchen.”

In addition to food producers, Sutton has also opened Kitchen Local to businesses like Carolyn’s Farm Kitchen, which provides hands-on, farm-to-table cooking classes that end with a full, sit-down meal. Owner Carolyn Greico of Haverhill says that by the beginning of March, she’d already booked classes at Kitchen Local for the next four months.

It’s clear that the benefit of having a shared-use commercial kitchen on the North Shore goes beyond simply giving a business the capacity to make a few more popovers or extra batches of cookies. The cumulative effect it could have on the growth of local businesses is hugely important to the local food economy, says Christine Sullivan, CEO of the Enterprise Center at Salem State University, a small business growth center that recently added a Local Food Initiative to its work.

Local food “is a very large and complicated sector of our economy here on the North Shore,” Sullivan says, something she didn’t fully realize until the Enterprise Center hosted a local food workshop in January 2012. About 100 people showed up, many wanting access to shared-use kitchen space.

“Until that day, I never understood how extensive the desire for [kitchen space] was,” Sullivan says. Because of that workshop, the Enterprise Center’s Local Food initiative was born. Now it’s working to create more shared-use resources for North Shore food entrepreneurs, including manufacturing and distribution space. And Sullivan is hailing Kitchen Local as a critical first step toward expanding the local food economy.

“I think the demand for it will be large and prove the need for it in other areas. I think it will be the symbol of what local food can do in the North Shore,” Sullivan says, calling Sutton a “shining icon for how to do this in the region.”

Like Sullivan, Sutton is excited to help grow local food businesses. She seems to have the perfect pedigree for owning Kitchen Local—she not only honed her business development and community engagement chops as a former Opportunity Works director, but also hails from a foodie family (her brother’s a caterer; her parents are former restaurateurs). And Sutton herself makes quiches so divine that her neighbors in the Amesbury mill have taken to giving them pet names. “We called it Lorraine,” one grateful man said reverently when he popped his head into Sutton’s office to thank her for delivering a quiche to him and his colleagues. And it wasn’t even a Quiche Lorraine, Sutton quipped back.

“There’s a much higher chance of your business being successful if it aligns with your values and your passions,” says Sutton, who wears her passions on her sleeve: growing small businesses, helping local farmers, making and eating good food, and building strong communities. They add up, in short, to all the ingredients needed to help give a little extra kick to the North Shore economy.