On January 9, Union Kitchen opened its doors for its first showcase of the year. More than 100 guests nibbled, sipped, and whiffed samples from 37 businesses that rent production space in the Northeast DC facility.
Among the industrial stainless steel counters and vault-like refrigerator doors, the business owners shared personal stories and original flavors.
Bonnie and April Wardlaw of Popcorn Queens represent one of the startups that the shared space has nurtured. For years, Bonnie (the mom of this mother-daughter team) made caramel popcorn at home to give as gifts, brushing off April’s encouragement to sell it. Then April added the popcorn to a catering menu she cooked up, and received a request for more of the confection.
"When I got the order, I felt like I had the evidence that we should go into business,” says April. So Popcorn Queens was born, and word of mouth got around. The business officially launched in September 2013. The two now churn out batch after batch of nine flavor options in Union Kitchen.
“It’s been unbelievable,” says Bonnie.
Not far from the popcorn royalty, a recent college graduate handed out velvety spoonfuls of gluten-free, vegan Slender Seven Cookie Dough, along with the tale of how it started with a business class project, then an online cookbook, and now this product. Next to her, a former embassy chef served up homemade rye crackers with Nordic spreads from the high-end menu of Chef Mikko Catering.
More novel samples and stories awaited upstairs in the bakery area, a room that smells so pungently of Undone Chocolate’s operation, you half expect to see an oompa loompa march by. There, Undone’s Adam and Kristen Kavalier served a tea made from the shells of cocoa beans. But that chocolate-scented tea is just a fraction of their background. Adam, who holds a PhD in plant science, spent years developing their main product: bean-to-bar chocolate that packs more antioxidants per serving than red wine.
Charlie Berkinshaw of Element [Shrub] passed samples of drinks using his tangy-sweet infused vinegars. Shrubs are an old-fashioned concept that recently found its way into mixologists’ arsenals. The path for Berkinshaw involved 400 pounds of urban crab apples and a pregnant woman’s quest for a nuanced virgin cocktail. Element Shrub will be one of the featured vendors at Edible DC’s upcoming Drinks Invitational on February 19th.
But Union Kitchen tastings are more than a romp through genesis stories and tasty products, says Distribution Manager Chris Wren. The events make key connections with retail stores.
“They break down the barriers to entry for our members,” Wren explains, “because a market is much more willing (and generally very excited) to come in when they can see a number of potential products at once.”
That exposure clears the way to store shelves, a path usually strewn with paperwork and cold calls.
The kitchen environment, complete with those industrial counters and walk-in refrigerators, also plays a role.
The space shows “there is a program with the infrastructure and the technical logistics to assist in coordinating the production, fulfillment, and deliveries of products,” Wren says.
Glen’s Garden Market, Yes! Organic Market, Dawson’s, Whole Foods, and numerous other stores already carry Union Kitchen products. There's little doubt that shoppers will see more "Made in Union Kitchen" labels in 2015.
Rhea Yablon Kennedy teaches English at Gallaudet University and eats good food wherever she can find it. She has written for The Washington Post, Elevation DC, The Jewish Daily Forward, and Grist, as well as Edible DC's predecessor, Edible Chesapeake.