Tammy Markee-Mayas knew she could make a better veggie burger -- one packed with organic sweet potatoes, raw walnuts, fresh chickpeas and jalapeño and savory spices. She would market them under the name IGo VeGo Hand-Crafted Vegan Burgers and sell them in a food cart during the summer. All Markee-Mayas needed was someplace to make and package her burgers.
"It's not an easy task to find a commercial-grade kitchen space," she says. "We looked for kitchens for probably two years before we found our first one."
That first one, at a catering company, didn't work out. Neither did the second one, a former retail space converted to a kitchen. So when the nonprofit Food Enterprise and Economic Development (FEED) Kitchens opened in a new building in the Northgate Shopping Center's parking lot in November 2013, IGo VeGo was eager to rent space there.
"If we didn't have FEED, we would not be in business," Markee-Mayas says. "I didn't feel secure continuing with private kitchens."
The $1.6 million, 5,400-square-foot facility -- developed by the Northside Planning Council over a five-year period -- recently celebrated its first birthday. It boasts five commercial kitchens, with specialized equipment for baking, produce preparation and processing, deli prep and meat processing. Rental rates as low as $15 per hour provide early-stage food manufacturing businesses, food cart vendors, job training programs and private individuals an affordable and legal space to prepare food.
Users range from familiar Madison names such as chefs Tory Miller and Giuseppe "Peppino" Gargano, to a variety of startups including Mad Maiden Shrub drinking vinegars, Madison Chocolate Company and 100 Mile Sauce. One couple even rented time to bake all of the pies served at their own wedding reception. Among the food carts that use FEED are Bubbles' Doubles, Haynes Kitchen and Ich Liebe Dich Mac 'N Cheese.
Spacious walk-in cooler, freezer and dry-storage spaces allow users to maintain ingredients inventories and sell their goods. Although only open to the public for select hours (most weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the facility's lobby features a display selling a handful of products manufactured in the kitchens.
Some businesses using FEED are delivery-only or have pickup locations, not unlike a CSA, while others -- hot sauce maker Mandy's Mood Foods, for example -- have secured shelf space in stores such as Metcalfe's, Hy-Vee, Whole Foods Market, Willy Street Co-Op, Madison Fresh Market, Piggly Wiggly and Woodman's.
Still others, including IGo VeGo, are in the process of developing distribution strategies. Markee-Mayas says her cart, which also features a variety of salads and raw dessert items, will be back in action this summer.
"The Madison food and food cart scene has been growing so much," says Adam Haen, the chef who manages FEED Kitchens. "This place gives a boost to the 'buy local' movement and helps businesses expand and legitimize their products."
One of the five kitchens is a training center used by nonprofit groups and cooking teachers. With significant shortages of skilled cooks and bakers in Dane County, FEED's partnerships with the River Food Pantry and Madison-Area Urban Ministry have established free bakery training programs. The baked goods made through those programs are sold at FEED Kitchens, Northgate's Boomerangs Resale Store, and other retailers and area churches. Participants who successfully complete either organization's training program are eligible for certification from the Wisconsin Bakers Association.
"Madison will likely need another kitchen soon on the west side," says Martee Mikalson, sales manager for Madison-based food service equipment and supply company Kessenich's Ltd., which was instrumental in fundraising for FEED. "Several other community organizations have visited FEED and shown an interest in building facilities."
Mandy Shipler, who makes Mandy's Mood Foods hot sauce, was one of FEED's first tenants. What began as a hobby for her has turned into a full-blown business, with a line of marinara sauces expected to roll out later this year and the potential hiring of employees.
"FEED Kitchens has been huge for me," Shipler says. "There are other food businesses just starting out, too -- all because of FEED."