KTCHeN Commissary helps local food trucks & vendors get ready for business

August 22, 2018
Charleston City Paper | By Mary Scott Hardaway

The standard real estate adage applies when it comes to opening a restaurant: location, location, location. But when you're a mobile eatery, driving hot dogs, ramen bowls, and chicken wings from parking lot to brewery to festival, location is all relative. The real linchpin for these restaurants on the road is what happens before they set up shop. For itinerant chefs, it's all about the prep space.

BKeD owners Chris Garate and Keila Viera know all too well the limitations food trucks, catering companies, and vendors face. When they moved to Charleston from Brooklyn three years ago, they operated BKeD out of a shared kitchen space, but could only work when the business owners were not there — from six at night until 7 a.m. As their bakery biz grew, Viera says that BKeD "was not able to operate as it needed to. We just really felt like we needed to do our own space."

And so, in 2016, the first version of KTCHeN was born. Tucked into a strip mall off of Rivers Ave., the smaller KTCHeN kitchen is now used primarily by bakers like Danetra Richardson, owner of Swank Desserts (and 2018 City Paper Wine + Food cover star). Garate says that between the smaller kitchen and the large industrial kitchen space, located in the same complex, they have about 45 small business owners working at any given time.

"The facilities are open 24 hours, the tenants have their own keys. They can do part time or full time ... the idea is that they can have something affordable because we ran into that problem as well." Part time tenants pay around $500 a month for space allocation and equipment use, and full time tenants' rent is "in the 600s."

And, as the city continues to grow, and upwards of 50 food trucks roam the narrow, crowded streets of the Holy City, KTCHeN's rent prices, the owners say, will not budge. "Charleston is increasing in cost for rent, everywhere, downtown you can't have a huge space, North Charleston is going up," says Viera. "For a small vendor, it's really hard to start on your own. The prices keep going higher, but we keep our rate the same, no matter what. Rent will always be the same and it's straight across the board, there's no secret rent rate. Everyone pays either/or, everyone knows what everyone else pays."

So what exactly are these tenants paying for? A DHEC certified-kitchen, for one. The large kitchen space has a huge dry storage area, two coolers and a walk-in freezer, all carefully organized so there's ample shelf space for everyone. "We went to a couple of commissaries before that didn't work out," says Viera. "You didn't have ownership of your own space, it was kind of a free-for-all, it was first come, first serve into the cooler, and you can't plan your production around that. That's the biggest difference for us, there's dedicated space for everyone."

There's also the industrial oven and range, a smoker, and even a fancy kettle where anyone hankering to make some jam could do so easily. Braised in the South is prepping in the kitchen when we visit, gearing up to smoke a heckofa lot of wings. "We thought a lot about what kind of equipment to buy," says Viera of the thousands of dollars worth of fancy tools. "Anywhere else [without the nifty smoker] Braised in the South would have to do one sheet pan at a time, and that increases their costs, they'd have to have more employees, spend more time here. Whereas here they can get in and out quickly ... It's everything we had to deal with, addressing those issues so these guys don't have to deal with it."

There are also private rooms to rent, which BKeD, Dashi (opening down the road soon), Cocoa Academic, and a SLED-certified booze pop maker use. Viera says that they outfit the private rooms, "These are serious tenants, they sign a one year lease, and they get to design it how they want. We bought all the tables and racks that go inside, all they have to do is bring in their specialized equipment. None of these tenants have left yet."

Cocoa Academic owner and chocolatier Bethany Nunn hosts chocolate tastings and classes in her private room, and Garate and Viera operate their mobile BKeD pop-up, their new WestEdge brick-and-mortar, and a second food truck (yet to be announced) out of their space. The SLED-certified room looks like a top secret hideout, completely closed off from the rest of the building. Because the business owner is infusing her popsicles with alcohol, "there are lots of specifications, and it's always locked," says Viera. "It's really cool how she was able to get that licensing in this space that has allowed her to grow her business."

Garate and Viera say DHEC visits them several times a week, but they welcome the constant inspections. "DHEC said we're the biggest [shared kitchen] that exists in Charleston," says Viera. "We have a great relationship with them, I think they respect what we do. We're making up the rules with them as we grow."

As food trucks continue as established staples in this food and bev obsessed city, Garate and Viera say they're excited to be a part of the growth, to be able to provide a space for these ambitious up and comers. "The idea of street foods is changing," says Viera. "Customers don't look at the taco stand in the corner and say 'oh yeah that might kill you.'" Graduates from KTCHeN include Semilla (with its own brand spankin' new restaurant now open on the Westside), Dashi, opening nearby on Remount Road, and Gypsy Pantry. And it's not just food trucks that are benefitting from this shared space — local farms are able to do a bulk delivery to KTCHeN, providing fresh milk and eggs to vendors. "They service several different tenants," says Viera. "That helps the local community in general, for small vendors to be able to get great product."