Cooking up fresh starts
Commercial kitchen helps event prep, burgeoning businesses
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The grand opening this afternoon of the Intolerant Italian, a purveyor of gluten-free pastas and baked goodies, was possible only with a break on the cost of exploring the business first, said Anne Vervaet, a partner in the venture with daughter Roxanne Riccardi.
“Without the use of the commercial kitchen at the (La Plata County) Fairgrounds early on, we never would have made it on our own,” Vervaet said.
Kitchen users say it’s handy and affordable, allowing them to test their culinary skills and marketing acumen without making a heavy financial investment.
The kitchen has been available for years, but it’s been particularly in demand recently, said Jane Zimmerman of the fairgrounds staff. The rent is $165 a day or $16.50 an hour, and there is a special rate for nonprofits.
The cost of getting into commercial food sales isn’t inconsequential. Anyone in the cottage food industry must meet conditions regulating the preparation and delivery of food set out in a 180-page Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment document.
The regulations are specific to all operations in order to safeguard health, said Greg Brand, director of environmental health at San Juan Basin Health Department, the local enforcement arm.
The monthly restaurant inspection list, published in The Durango Herald, gives an idea of how closely food purveyors are monitored.
Vervaet and Riccardi refined their recipes in the fairgrounds kitchen.
“We started to make gluten-free Italian flat bread, muffins, cookies and take-and-bake pizzas in June 2011,” Vervaet said. “We baked at Manna Soup Kitchen for a time, too.”
Among others who use the fairgrounds kitchen are:
Ed Killen, a partner in Huck Food, which makes a snack for energy and endurance concocted from almonds, honey, coconut oil and sea salt.
Huck evokes adventure such as the literary Huckleberry Finn or the slang term “huck” used by snowboarders or skateboarders, Killen said.
“The kitchen allows us to test, sample and tweak the formula, Killen said. “It’s an opportunity to market in a safe way.”
The product was tried by youth athletes before production began, Killen said.
Derek Van Atta, a 15-year veteran of the health food field, is a partner in Solay SuperFood, a powder to fortify smoothies. It comes in four flavors.
Among the ingredients are cacao, plant protein and camu camu berries found in Peru that have a high level of vitamin C.
“The kitchen is very handy because we’re not big enough to have our own facility,” Van Atta said. “The kitchen is an incubator for small businesses.”
The fairgrounds kitchen is licensed for commercial use by San Juan Basin Health Department, said fairgrounds staff member Zimmerman.
Equipment – refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, mixer and utensils – are included in the price, she said. Users can bring their own small tools if they want.
Among the ground rules, Zimmerman said, are: Be flexible because on weekends big events usually require the kitchen; leave no products on the premises; leave the kitchen as clean as it was found.
Gardenswartz Sporting Goods has used the fairgrounds kitchen three times a year for 15 years to feed employees during three-day clearance sales, said Gardenswartz owner Richard Ellis.
“The employees need to be fed,” Ellis said. “The fare varies – fish, casseroles, sandwiches.”
Jocelyn Skill, a pastry chef by training and the principal of Skillfully Decadent, got her start at the fairgrounds kitchen upon arrival in La Plata County in 2011.
Skill bought a mobile bakery last year to work regional festivals. She also makes granola and bakes celebration cakes and some gluten-free items.
“The kitchen was a good starting point,” Skill said. “All staff members at the fairgrounds are very accommodating, and I plan to use the kitchen again when it’s too warm to bake in my mobile.”
Michel Poumay, the peripatetic Belgian chef who closed his upscale Chez Grand-Mére restaurant in Durango after 12 years to make all kinds of crêpes in a mock trolley car at College Drive and Main Avenue, uses the fairgrounds kitchen. There, he prepares the pork and chicken for his savory crêpes and the onion soup he serves in the winter.
“I prepare all my major stuff there – usually every second Monday,” Poumay said. “It’s a great place and inexpensive.”