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Shared Kitchen Helps CoMo Food Entrepreneurs Build Up Business

Xcaret Nunez

Small businesses owned by people of color and women have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic. Some Columbia groups have one possible answer to this: mid-Missouri’s first large-scale shared commercial kitchen, and it comes at a critical time for business owners.

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon as Jannah Sanchez is at the CoMo Cooks kitchen, banging chocolate molds against a large table and scraping excess chocolate to leave a smooth finish for the dozens of bonbons on order.

Jannah and her sister Elle Sanchez are chocolatiers who packed up their business – called Tsokolate (cho - ko - lat - eh) – and moved to Columbia a year ago with the goal of sharing their Filipino culture and superfood bonbons with the community. 

“So when we moved here, we planned on opening a storefront because we were planning on opening up a chocolate factory,” Jannah Sanchez said. “But then COVID hit.”

Like many other business owners, the pandemic halted the Sanchez sisters’ plans. The nearest commissary kitchen to work from was more than a 30-minute drive and its small space made production difficult. The sisters felt a moment of struggle. 

James Whitt is the director of Columbia’s Supplier Diversity Program. He works to mentor business owners of color and women business owners to help them grow within the community. Whitt said that the pandemic has also allowed time for business owners to adjust their business strategies. 

“A number of minority-owned businesses struggled with sales declining and customers going away,” Whitt said. “It's made a profound change in a lot of our businesses… they will be innovative and utilize some of their older techniques… and some of the techniques that they've learned.”

Credit CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen

That change came for some local food entrepreneurs earlier this year with the opening of the CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen, a project of The Loop Community Improvement District and Columbia-based Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI. 

CoMo Cooks is a shared commercial kitchen that is centrally located in Columbia at Mizzou North. It was made possible by two national grants supporting small-scale entrepreneurs. 

Carrie Gartner is the executive director of The Loop CID. She said REDI and The Loop are two organizations with similar goals to improve economic development and support business owners of color, so they partnered up.

“We did a lot of outreach, and what people said across the board was that what Columbia needed was a shared commercial kitchen,” Gartner said. “You know, for these businesses who cannot afford the early stages to outfit an entire restaurant kitchen.”

Business owners of color often face difficult odds, whether it be a lack of access to financial capital or discrimination in contracting. These disparities already existed prior to COVID but deepened in 2020, with Black businesses closing at more than twice the rate of white-owned businesses, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Business closure rates of Latinx, Asian, and female-owned businesses followed behind.

Bryan Manness, the CoMo Cooks kitchen manager and local business owner of the Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. food truck, said the kitchen is an important asset he’s glad the community has access to.

“Our society is not necessarily an equitable system,” Manness said. “So it's [CoMo Cooks] a great resource to offer people the chance to become entrepreneurs and build a business idea when that lack of access to resources may have prohibited that.”

Credit CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen

Manness also said that his 20 years of experience in kitchen management helps him assist CoMo Cooks clients with the challenges that come with beginning a food-related business. Although he didn’t face disparities, he knows the process can be hard to navigate.

“Opening in 2013, it was really difficult to try to find a place to operate out of,” Manness said. “In my first year, I moved through three different commissary kitchens until I landed on a spot that I could make my own.”

And for the Sanchez sisters, that stable large kitchen space has made all the difference in the world.

“Our next step is really to focus on our packaging, shipping and delivery because we do want to do global shipping,” Jannah Sanchez said.

Jannah and Elle Sanchez plan to continue working out of CoMo Cooks and grow the online business they gained throughout the pandemic. And then what’s next? They said they are looking toward opening up a chocolate shop.

More information about the CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen is available on its website.

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