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Published on April 16th, 2013 | by Grace Heerman

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Culinary Incubation at the Free-Range Kitchen

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The Free-Range Kitchen comes together. Photo courtesy of Bridgett Crews

Having experienced the ups and downs of small-time food production firsthand, Bridgett Crews and Krista Keithly of the Hilltop Pop Shop are paying it forward and helping others find success with their latest culinary innovation, The Free-Range Kitchen.

Tacoma’s first “culinary incubator,” the Kitchen will eliminate the deterrent of high startup costs and inaccessible resources by giving small contractors the chance to rent space in a professional kitchen on an as-needed basis.

Their goal: to help build other Pop Shops and cultivate a solid network of small-time food producers in Tacoma.

Creating lasting changes to Tacoma’s food production community is a tall order, but if the vibrancy and popularity of the Pop Shop is any indicator, Crews and Keithly are up to the task.

Colorful Beginnings

Though it’s only been in operation one market season, the Hilltop Pop Shop has become a staple at numerous Tacoma farmers’ markets. Kids look forward to the booth’s weekly popsicle stick-related craft, and parents appreciate the opportunity to let their families indulge in a healthy, seasonal sweet treat.

Keithly and Crews remember the night the Pop Shop was conceptualized: with kids in bed and husbands occupied with an after-dinner drum circle, the two began tossing around ideas for a fun, community-enriching project that would engage their creativity and love of food. Brainstorming quickly turned into “scheming,” and within two months the Pop Shop had made its first sale.

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Krista Keithly (left), Bridgett Crews and Maddie Crews at one of the Pop Shop’s many farmer’s market appearances. Photo courtesy of Bridgett Crews

“It’s sort of like an adult lemonade stand,” Crews said.

The product itself, however, wasn’t the catalyst. “We were more motivated by the idea of building community and [helping customers get] to know the people in [their] neighborhood,” Crews said. “It became an experience that parents could share with their kids at the farmers’ market.”

Familiarity with dietary restrictions and a desire to offer a little something for everyone has pushed them to invent gluten-, dairy-, and even sugar-free options, all of which are primarily marketed to kids.

But kid-friendliness doesn’t mean cookie-cutter flavors. “We’re always trying to look for stuff outside the classic red, purple, yellow and orange,” Keithly said. They’ve offered everything from the classic (strawberry mint, lemon berry ginger, and watermelon orange) to the unexpected (carrot coconut ginger, creamed corn, cucumber, and beet), and they’re innovating all the time.

What distinguishes these pops from other all-natural varieties is the degree to which their production is dictated by the seasons. The cycle starts with flavors like apple and chocolate, but within weeks is supplanted by berry, veggie and citrus. “As the season evolves, the pops change,” Crews explained, “which makes it really fun; when it’s here it’s here, and when it’s gone it’s gone.”

“We really move to the beat of nature with the Pop Shop.”

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Hilltop pops set in paleta molds. Photo courtesy of Bridgett Crews

The two are eager to innovate and expand, and are entertaining the idea of wholesale production. But they have limits. Freshness is paramount for these pops, and Crews and Keithly insist on small batches and a short shelf life. Though they may seem primitive, the ladies’ four 40-yield paleta molds suit them just fine, allowing them to turn out a few hundred pops as needed before events.

New Year, New Project

At the core of the Free-Range Kitchen is the same industrious spirit and self-identified “do it now, apologize later” attitude that got the Pop Shop on its feet. Though it began as a means of supporting their pop production, the two couldn’t overlook the facility’s potential as a shareable resource that could benefit small-scale food producers throughout the city.

“In Tacoma there are a few places you can produce in a commercial kitchen, but its pretty rare, and they’re usually full,” Crews explained. Initially, Crews and Keithly created their pops during rented time slots in a Hilltop restaurant’s kitchen space. The hours weren’t ideal. “We were making pops at like midnight,” Keithly said.

In November 2012, their hosts closed up shop and skipped town, leaving the Pop Shop without a home. Though temporarily inconvenient, their displacement was less of a disaster than a blessing as it opened their eyes to a vacant Taco Time on 6th Ave.

The space’s potential was impossible to overlook. Crews and Keithly knew their need for a professional, local kitchen wasn’t unique – most Tacoma-area producers are forced to travel to Seattle or Olympia to find sufficient facilities. They saw the former fast food joint as the perfect venue for sharing resources and enabling local food producers, many of whom they’d connected with in the farmers’ market circuit, to grow their businesses.

With their landlord’s support, the two jumped in with both feet and drew up plans for Tacoma’s only commissary food production facility.

Take one step inside the former fast-food mecca and you’ll see physical evidence of their dedication and work ethic. The two have seemingly done the impossible: what was formerly the regional Taco Time headquarters is now a trendy and inviting kitchen and meeting space, its stucco walls and terracotta floor tiles no longer kitschy but warm and stylish.

The building is window-filled and south facing, and felt sunny on the rainy day I visited. I was comfortable and even relaxed in its cozy sitting nook, whose capacity as a neutral customer meeting space is yet another of the Free-Range Kitchen’s assets.

The “garden room,” once an awkward greenhouse-style seating area littered with cigarette butts and hot sauce packets, will now double as an herb growing area and verdant client meeting space.

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The “garden room” will be one of the Free-Range Kitchen’s greatest assets. Photo courtesy of Bridgett Crews

What is a “culinary incubator” anyway?

To be clear, this is not a co-op kitchen. Members aren’t owners in the business; that model already exists in Tacoma. Rather, what Keithly and Crews are creating is a private, commissary kitchen, offering temporary membership to small contractors who will one day “grow up and leave the nest.”

“We want to build other Pop Shops,” Crews said. “We want to use our knowledge and expertise to help others in our position find success without investing needlessly.”

They call it a “culinary incubator,” a term that, to my surprise, is fairly well known within the foodservice community. Authors of its Wikipedia entry are even bold enough to throw around the term incubatees.

Incubators make a lot of sense considering our nation’s strict food safety measures. Giving small-time food producers access to shared, rentable resources has the potential to eliminate the paralyzing effect of the high startup costs, volatile profit margins and stringent regulations involved with food production.

“That’s what the kitchen is all about – giving people a place to try stuff out,” Keithly said. “And that’s something that’s kind of rare for this area.”

The Free-Range Kitchen will not only offer professional-grade appliances, food storage facilities and workspace, but also a network of consultants who can give advice on everything from licensing, to marketing, packaging and website design.

The two plan to facilitate connections between producers by encouraging them to pool their talents and hopefully learn from each other’s experiences.

“The way we have it designed is for people to come in and let us know what their needs are, and we will custom design a plan for them,” Crews explained. Depending on where members are in the process, Crews and Keithly can offer support building a concept, applying for farmers’ market vendorship, and obtaining necessary food processing licenses, among other things.

Though they require a deposit from new members, they are “definitely willing to work with people in terms of their financial situation,” which is something that “is a little more uncommon,” they explained. “Usually people want more of a commitment, but I see it as us investing in others. And [the commitment] will come.”

The kitchen has been designed with sharing in mind; with color-coded tools, designated work areas based on dietary restrictions, and health department approval across the board. Keithly and Crews also want to promote a resource sharing system in which members can store their personal, more specialized equipment (food warmers, for example) in the kitchen for a small fee, and rent them out to other patrons, also for a fee.

Fire Signs

The Kitchen sounds like a godsend, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether there is a demand for a facility like this in Tacoma. According to Crews and Keithly, the answer is yes, absolutely there is.

Clients are piling up. The two are closer to turning people away than they are to seeking them out. After only two weeks of promotion, they were approached by more than 14 firms interested in membership.

The cast of “characters” includes a candy maker, wedding cake baker, personal chef, vegan dessert chef, artisan sandwich maker, Italian pasta sauce cook, and a food truck owner, among others – all of whom expressed interest before the space was even up and running.

As with the Pop Shop, the ladies insist that the impetus behind the Free-Range Kitchen is not to turn a profit; their palpable enthusiasm and commitment confirm this.

Though Crews and Keithly joke that their zodiac fire signs would propel the project with or without community support, at its core the Free-Range Kitchen is about building relationships and creating symbiosis.

“We can create something so much greater if we can bring everyone together,” Keithly said.

To schedule a tour, learn about rates, or apply for membership, visit the Free-Range Kitchen’s webpage.

Interested in supporting the Kitchen? The ladies are raising dough and seeking lots of kitchen items (commercial dishwasher, aprons and towels, cutting boards, commercial hot plates and more) to complete the project. Make a donation and help support a tastier Tacoma! View their kitchen “wish list” here, or submit a monetary donation via PayPal, snail mail or in person: 4427 6th Ave. #101, Tacoma, WA 98406.

Tel: 253-970-9587

Tel: 360-662-6461

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One Response to Culinary Incubation at the Free-Range Kitchen

  1. Heather Chitty says:

    Do you still rent kitchen space?

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