University of Illinois Extension gives an update on the Pretzel City Kitchens project tonight at its Openfields Local Foods Harvest Dinner in Freeport. The Extension and its partners are excited by the project’s potential.
Margaret Larson is the director of University of Illinois Extension for Jo Daviess, Stephenson and Winnebago Counties. She says the idea for the Pretzel City Kitchens goes back as least as far as 2008. The extension had been promoting farmer’s markets and community gardens, and was looking at next steps with local growers.
“And one of the things that lots of them were interested in was, how they could preserve or add value to their produce.”
Larson says she and others had seen examples of entrepreneurial kitchens in Madison and Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The kitchens offer commercial-grade kitchen facilities and services to people starting or running a small business for a small fee. In essence, they’re business incubators, with the focus on food. Larson thought the concept would work well in northwest Illinois. She also likes that the project fits in with the Extension’s efforts to promote local foods, nutrition and other programs.
Grant McCarty is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator for the Extension. He works with those local growers, who generally sell at farmers markets. He says it will give them a chance to scale up from what they can do at home.
“This is the next step for them. So they’re taking stuff from the field, transforming it into, say a jam or jelly, and then selling at a farmers market, or selling it outside the Rockford area. And that can provide a very stable income throughout the year.”
McCarty says the Pretzel City Kitchens will not only give access to commercial-grade facilities at a reasonable rate – say $15 or $20 an hour - but also a chance for individuals to learn what it will take to build up, and maintain, that larger business.
Alex Mills is the City of Freeport’s Community Development Director. He says the city wants to help its budding entrepreneurs gain skills and have the support the Kitchens will provide. And there might be a side benefit.
“Ultimately, these entrepreneurs go out and do develop small businesses. Small businesses are the bread and butter of our local economy, and we want to encourage that. It’s also a unique opportunity for Freeport to have something in their community that not every other community has - maybe more of a regional draw in that regard.”
It’s already a regional draw for local school districts. A half-dozen of them share a culinary training program through a consortium called CareerTec. With the schools’ support, the consortium has become a partner in the project, and plans to move the culinary program to the new facilities.
Steve Konefes is the culinary instructor for CareerTec. He says Pretzel City Kitchens presents an ideal opportunity for the students.
“I think that would be any culinary instructor’s dream, especially if they teach for a high school. I mean, that’d be at the caliber of the Cordon Bleu or any culinary school in the city [of Chicago].”
Konefes is also excited about the opportunities the kitchen will provide to others. He used to have a personal chef business in Chicago, and would have loved to have been able to use a facility like Pretzel City.
“To have access to a relatively low-cost commercial kitchen is a huge boon, because most people can’t afford their own kitchen. I couldn’t, so I had to cook out of my own personal kitchen, which really limited what I could do. You know, you can’t cook food for a wedding for 200 people out of your own personal kitchen.”
More recently, the Blackhawk Hills Regional Council, northwest Illinois’ regional planning commission, has joined the project. Members of the Council say Pretzel City Kitchens fits in with their efforts to spur development in the area. It’s been helping the Kitchens partners apply for grants through the federal Economic Development Administration, as well as other public and private sources.
They’ll be needed. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the project $100, 000. The partners say it’s a big boost, but only one of many needed if the Kitchens are to begin operating, as hoped, in the fall of 2016. A deal has been worked with the City of Freeport to refit the old Stephens Market in its downtown with the kitchen facilities and possibly a retail space. It will take a steady stream of money to update the building, buy necessary equipment and, once the Kitchens open, keep the burners lit.
Still, Larson says, after the years of effort on the project, she’s exhilarated at the prospect of it finally opening.
“It’s very exciting to see bricks and mortar in the immediate future. Really exciting to see the community come together to support this. Not just Freeport or even Stephenson County, but a pretty large geographical area, that we know is positioned to use this facility.”
And once it’s up and running, Larson says, she and the others look forward to working with other communities, forging new partnerships and finding more users, and uses, for Pretzel City Kitchens.