.Forage Kitchen Resurfaces in Uptown Oakland

More than three years after Iso Rabins promised to open the world’s “first co-working space for food” in San Francisco, the Bay Area forager and underground food market operator has finally started construction on what he touts as a radical departure from the commercial-kitchen model. And it turns out that, as with so many of the interesting food businesses that are opening right now, Rabins’ Forage Kitchen will be located not in San Francisco, but in Oakland.

[jump] Forage Kitchen will be located in a 2,700-square-foot warehouse at 478 25th Street in Uptown — right at the epicenter of the arts community and the creative energy that fuels the city’s well-publicized First Friday events. In addition to the shared kitchen facility, it also promises office space and an array of other services — an “A to Z” of everything a new food business might need. The goal is for the facility to be open by the middle of September, Rabins said.

The announcement of the Oakland location is the latest chapter in what had been a high-profile story of an ambitious and massively funded Bay Area food business that, over time, receded from public view. In June 2012, Forage Kitchen successfully completed a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign — a stunning amount of money for a food-related project. But shortly after Rabins raised all of that cash, Forage Kitchen essentially fell off the map. Word on the street was that the initial location in San Francisco didn’t work out, and there were vague rumblings that Rabins had moved the project to Oakland — but, until recently, no other concrete details.

A quick recap, then: Forage Kitchen is a collaboration by Rabins and his business partner — and cousin — Matt Johansen, one of the founders of Biergarten, a beer garden in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. But Rabins is the face of the project, whose origins can be traced to the rise and fall of San Francisco’s Underground Market, a monthly event that Rabins created in order to provide a forum for fledgling, unpermitted food entrepreneurs to sell their homemade candy bars and fried chicken sandwiches to the public for a mere $50 table fee, as opposed to the upwards of $2,000 they’d have spend up front to “go legit.” Rabins pulled this off by characterizing the market as a private, “members’ only” event, thus exempting it from health regulations, and by keeping its location somewhat of a secret — at least until The New York Times discovered it and dispelled any notion of it being private, thereby leading San Francisco’s health department to order a cease-and-desist.

What the experience taught Rabins, though, was that there were many talented food artisans who needed help: a kitchen at which they could cook legally, but more than that, a place at which they could also get advice about permitting and fundraising. He conceived of Forage Kitchen to be that kind of place — “a home for people who love food,” as he put it.

Of course, the Bay Area is already home to many commercial kitchens that purport to be “food incubators,” providing support to entrepreneurs beyond a mere place to cook — coincidentally, one of them, Kitchener Oakland, is located just a few blocks away from the Forage Kitchen site. But Rabins said what sets Forage Kitchen apart is the way he is bringing the tech world’s model of a “co-working space” to small-scale food producers. Shared office space will give food entrepreneurs a place to do paperwork and hold meetings. In addition, Rabins hopes to find an attorney to volunteer to host a weekly “Ask a Lawyer” hour — the premise being that small business owners often have questions that would only take a few minutes of a lawyer’s time. And if a business is ready to take on investors, Forage Kitchen can help find those funders, Rabins said.

The other difference is that Rabins wants the kitchen to be available to anyone willing to pay a $99 monthly “maker” membership fee. This, too, takes its cue from the tech world notion of a hacker- or maker-space, except that instead of dropping in to use a soldering iron, Forage Kitchen makers could work on any kind of big kitchen project — a dinner party they’re hosting or a batch of edible holiday gifts, for instance.

The key to making Forage Kitchen financially sustainable while also keeping its barrier of entry low will be to cultivate a variety of different revenue streams, Rabins said. Toward that end, the facility will include a full-service cafe that will feature three-month “rotating residencies” of up-and-coming chefs. And the parking lot area will be available to rent as an outdoor event space.

Given that construction has only just begun more than three years after the initial crowdfunding campaign, it almost goes without saying that Forage Kitchen has faced some challenges along the way — mostly having to do with securing a lease on a suitable space. According to Rabins, there were a slew of potential locations — first in San Francisco and then in Oakland — that fell through at the last minute. “I feel like if I could have had my way, it would have opened a month after the Kickstarter ended,” he said.

That may be of little solace to Kickstarter contributors who — again, three years ago — paid $1,000 for 75 hours of reduced-rate kitchen rental that they haven’t been able to claim. Rabins said he feels for those folks and, more importantly, has offered to refund that money in August. About eight out of twelve food entrepreneurs who contributed at that level have taken him up on the offer, he said.

For now, the food business incubator appears to be back on track. Construction on the Uptown warehouse space has been underway for about a month, and a grand opening celebration has been tentatively slated for October. In the next week or two, Rabins hopes to launch a podcast, “Food Diaries,” that will highlight the work of local food makers — some of whom might eventually take up residence at Forage Kitchen.


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