When I pulled up to the Overbrook industrial park and saw David Villarroel and his two young boys waving a blaring fire truck towards the back of the building, I thought: Oh no, the Cauldron Kitchen is already up in smoke!
Turns out it was just a burning bush outside and not the premature demise of the Ottawa engineer’s new start-up business — a first-of-its-kind in the city — a commercial community kitchen.
A sign from above, perhaps? Had he and business partner Dave Neil indeed been “chosen” to lead Ottawa’s small time culinary creators to a land of milk and honey? An affordable place where they could prepare their foodstuffs without violating health and safety regulations? A space where resources are shared, monies pooled and everybody saves on overhead and through bulk buying power? A community where like-minded foodies can swap ideas, collaborate and help one another?
Divine intervention may be a stretch, but these guys certainly think they’re onto something.
“As resources get more and more limited because costs keep going up — electricity, gas, rents are atrocious right now — it makes it really hard for a food business,” says Neil who speaks from experience as the co-owner of The Piggy Market, a craft butcher and delicatessen in Westboro.
“If you can help mitigate some of those costs for a business, it helps in the long run.”
Enter Cauldron Kitchen.
Once operational — they hope by July or August — food businesses will be able to rent kitchen time in four-hour block minimums for $80.
The plans call for at least two, full, 24-7 commercial kitchens, a prep space, a dish pit, walk-in cooler and freezer space. Industrial induction burners, stock pot ranges, deep fryers, meat slicers, blenders and dough mixers will also be available for rent.
Frequent fryers, meanwhile, will be able to choose from a series of packages that include storage space and procurement as well as group purchasing services. Three charging stations behind the building will allow food trucks to juice up while operators prepare meals inside.
In fact, they say the city’s bustling new food truck/cart industry is really what highlighted the need for community kitchen space where small-to-medium sized food businesses that are getting a little too big for their britches could expand at minimal cost.
It’s an idea that’s already taken off across the U.S. and in places like Vancouver and Toronto, but Villarroel says Ottawa has nothing quite as flexible as what the Cauldron is offering.
They’re also targeting small caterers, chefs looking for space to host cooking classes, as well as canners, cooks, candy makers and bakers who want to reach beyond the craft fair/farmers’ market circuit.
“If you want to grow further and sell, for example, at Farm Boy or Loblaws . . . the first question you’re asked is ‘are you making this stuff in a commercial kitchen,’” Villarroel says.
“If you are not, they refuse you immediately because it’s not legal to do that.”
But for now, Villarroel and Neil are targeting investors in a bid to raise $225K. While a recent Indiegogo campaign was a bust — Villarroel argues crowd funding works better for a product than a service — they’ve got seven believers on board. Still, they’re looking for a “lead investor” with deep pockets to really break the ice.
“The timing to bring this type of resource to Ottawa seems to be really great. I can attest to it by the amount of inquiries we have to our email,” Villarroel says, adding the investment is in infrastructure and hard assets like stoves and freezers.
“If it all fails in some way, we actually have something we can resell . . . I don’t see the risks as that high. It’s just getting people to understand a little bit.”
Tobi Cohen has worked as a journalist for more than a decade at Postmedia News, the Canadian Press and the Ottawa Sun. Born and raised in Ottawa, she loves this city and spends far too much time frequenting its many bars, restaurants and music festivals.