Nestled in between a public pool and a laundromat is a CDFI-funded project that is launching the careers of food entrepreneurs in West Philadelphia. OFN summer interns and staff members recently organized a site visit to the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises. Our tour group of ten wanted to learn more about this community facility—straight from the source itself.
An OFN Member since 2015, The Enterprise Center (TEC) is a Philadelphia-based CDFI that provides capital, business acceleration, and community and economic development opportunities to people of color. Its Community Team engages with the people of West Philadelphia by aligning capital funding to entrepreneurs, and leveraging community initiatives, particularly by financing healthy eating projects. This is where we find The Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE).
Refurbished from an abandoned supermarket in 2011, CCE serves as a versatile community space for food entrepreneurs. The complex supports established and start-up food entrepreneurs with four commercial kitchens, one demonstration kitchen, and a communal social lounge, available to rent on an hourly basis.
We met with the charismatic Kim Carter, Vice President of Partnerships, who guided us through the Center’s facility. Kim joined CCE three years ago, as a staff member of The Enterprise Center. The CCE offers membership to entrepreneurs in need of kitchen space, and are ready to take the next step in their food venture.
“With Philadelphia’s exploding food culture, we saw a need to open a space for budding entrepreneurs,” said Kim.
The facility runs bi-monthly ‘foodie’ forums that vet interested applicants through the membership process. CCE Members use the space for their entire culinary production, while others use it specifically for cooking, baking, processing, or educating.
This kind of innovative and functional placemaking has made CCE a catalyst for local food entrepreneurs. Naturally, the OFN tour group was excited to get started, and see how a CDFI impacts communities and the lives of entrepreneurs. On the first stop on the tour, we caught up with the coming-of-age staff of Rebel Ventures (RV).
Youth-driven Rebel Ventures is a social enterprise on a mission to create a sustainable food system for Philadelphia. Six high school students lead the project, developing and distributing healthy, affordable food in schools. The “RV Crew” are responsible for all operations.
“The students here are interested in food, and they’re interested in business,” said Jarrett Stein, one of RV’s two professional staff members.
In January 2017, RV’s Rebel Crumbles Cake began distribution to all School District of Philadelphia cafeterias in the School Breakfast Program—students from 280 schools in Philadelphia have access to this product. Half fruit, half whole grains, the crumble cake is RV’s way of delivering nutrition to the city. The entire production, from baking, test trials, to decision-making in manufacturing and distribution, was executed by the young people of RV.
One staff member, Zanayja, 14, sees her work as experience, “This is practice for my future. But this is making positive change.”
Reflecting on meeting the young people of RV, Charles Blyzniuk, OFN Financial Services Associate said, “I am excited and inspired after experiencing their enthusiasm and listening to them talk about their work.”
While still young, the Rebel Ventures Crew seem to have captured the essence of what Kim Carter says is the critical balance for managing a food business at any phase in its growth.
“Most entrepreneurs that [are CCE Members] have their passion for food. What we do here is we try to connect all of the dots—how to run the business, and how to fund the business.”
Kim and the CCE staff provide additional technical assistance to Members, and create networking opportunities to help them obtain procurements with distributors such as Bon Appetit and Sodexo.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business,” she said. “You can be passionate about the food, but you have to look at the business first.”
Deborah Bradley, Owner of Simply Blessed Cakes, has mastered this duality, leveraging her baking talents with a savvy entrepreneurial edge. We met Deborah as she was preparing materials for a demonstration to make us a Simply Blessed favorite, mini buttercake cupcakes.
Using the CCE baking kitchen, Deborah talked us through her process of baking and shared her experiences as a food entrepreneur. She says CCE has completely streamlined her business: “I used to bake all of my cakes in my apartment. It used to take me three days to make a cake, now it takes me 3-4 hours.”
One quick browse through Simply Blessed’s Instagram of towering cakes and colorful fondant shows why Deborah, who now averages ten bakes a week, is making a name for herself as a Philly food entrepreneur.
With our taste buds officially tantalized, we stepped out of the kitchens into a retail space on the 4800 block of Spruce Street, known as Common Table. A TEC and CCE program, Common Table offers space as a pop-up restaurant incubator for aspiring chefs in Philadelphia. Entrepreneurs, including CCE Members, can apply to use the space as their own restaurant open to the public to test out everything in their business model—from inventory and payroll, to menu options and décor.
“We look for an entrepreneur that’s unique, who is bringing something new to the Table, and we’re looking for someone that can also manage a business,” said Val Cadet, The Enterprise Center’s Manager for Common Table.
A success story from the Common Table is Joyce’s Joyful Cuisine & Lulu Bang BBQ. Famous for its sauces, Lulu Bang BBQ was a vendor during the NFL Draft, and recently appeared on Shark Tank in October.
Among other CCE alumni is Chef Carl Lewis, and his restaurant, 48th Street Grille.We dined at the Caribbean-American kitchen (located at Common Table’s adjacent retail space) for lunch as the final stop on our tour.
Lewis opened the Grille in 2014 with the vision to bring quality Jamaican food to a sit-down restaurant experience, and has since earned himself top nods among Philly’s food rankings. Staff and interns dined on Lewis’ famous jerk chicken, island sandwiches, and other Caribbean classics.
While all OFN staff believe in the mission behind CDFIs, a consensus among the tour group agreed that being present at a facility established by a CDFI, was profound in gaining perspective on the actual impact that CDFIs, and the professionals that administer projects like CCE, have. For the interns especially, who may have just been introduced to the CDFI industry just months ago, this was a powerful experience. Caitlin Tardio, intern for Public Policy said, “I am going to take this experience with me-- seeing the real impact that CDFIs have on the people in their communities.”
OFN would like to thank Kim Carter, Val Cadet, The Enterprise Center, and Center for Culinary Enterprises for their hospitality and their enthusiasm on the tour. Your work to create economic opportunity for the people in West Philadelphia every day is invaluable.