Opening a restaurant can feel nearly impossible to someone who has never handled licensing or regulations in the food industry while also having limited resources for kitchen space. Fortunately, the Council Bluffs and Omaha area has developed a solution for food startups and entrepreneurs.
Kitchen Council was a concept started in 2016 that officially launched in February 2018 as a joint effort by the Greater Omaha Chamber and community partners Iowa West Foundation, Council Bluffs Chamber, Conagra Brands and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Their mission was to create a food startup incubator that helped lower the barriers to market entry for food entrepreneurs including caterers, bakers, aspiring restaurateurs, food truck operators and those creating packaged products. Learning to work across state lines was important in order to serve clients in both states with their own unique requirements.
The starter home of Kitchen Council was in a previous restaurant space in Council Bluffs. Holly Benson Muller, Managing Director of Kitchen Council, was part of the planning and opening of Kitchen Council after she moved to Omaha and fell in love with its food scene. “I did not see myself living in Nebraska, but when I landed here I was inspired by the food landscape of amazing farmers markets and interesting, innovative restaurants that represented international cuisines. There were food businesses and producers growing right in our backyard!” said Benson Muller.
In January 2020, Kitchen Council moved into its permanent home at the Hoff Family Arts and Culture Center. The new 3,000 square foot facility includes commercial grade equipment, as well as production and storage spaces. The program offers their members guidance on how to start a business, assistance in navigating health department regulations, a shared commercial workspace, a community of food entrepreneurs for networking and event opportunities, as well as educational resources. Monthly membership options include a “Full Time” membership for $450 a month with 24-hour everyday access to the facility or a “Nights & Weekends” membership for $350 a month, which allows facility access from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. during weekdays while still granting 24-hour access on weekends.
Kitchen Council currently has 10 resident members that share the space and could comfortably take in another 10 members. The number of residents has fluctuated over time as businesses open and close. “We exist so people can test the waters and see if a business will evolve as people want or take a step back to find what the next move is if not,” said Benson Muller. “It is not only a stepping stone to the bigger steps, but we also exist to do research and development. If a business is going to fail, they can then fail fast and not lose so much.”
For people looking to become members or food entrepreneurs in general, Kitchen Council offers a quarterly two-hour Food Startup 101 class. “We give a bird’s eye view for what one should think about with starting a food business. We want to support, but also give a realistic idea of all the layers involved, not to overwhelm, but to be realistic. Food is exciting, whether you make it or eat it. It is something we all can relate with and it is at the center of our communities and dinner tables as something we all bond over. Someone might feel passion in the kitchen to make grandma’s recipe, but they might not think about what all that can entail with 13-hour days in a kitchen. You have to be scrappy,” explained Benson Muller. “Kitchen Council can help save time, money and potential heartache if people jump in before they are ready.”
As seen throughout the community, the burden of Covid-19 hit the food landscape heavily. “There have been many food businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic and they are trying to navi-gate how to get through this thing alive at the end. I am so proud of the Kitchen Council members for pivoting and restructuring their business models to bring in income to live off of. The pandemic also gave opportunity for food entrepreneurs to be creative and presented a new opportunity to think broader than before, while some have had to pause and close their doors,” said Benson Muller. “I think it has created interesting opportunities for folks that were not thinking about a food business, and now they have felt inspiration to try something they can do and be good at. We need to lift up small businesses and support how we can.”