Real Good Kitchen serves up community and business acumen for local food entrepreneurs
When Angie Cook opened her food truck “Cooks on the Curb” in 2016, she wasn’t prepared for what would come. Cook got the food truck from her husband for her birthday and the pimento cheese she made was the focus of every dish. “We took it to the road with our family as a way to teach out kids about work ethic and to give them part-time jobs and us to have some time together,” Cook explains. However, having two full-time jobs and a food truck proved to be a bit more than a side hustle—“it’s a full-on everything hustle,” she says.
They decided to sell the truck and transition to small manufacturing. “We already had a customer base and they liked our product and kept asking for it and if I would make it on the side,” she says. “A lightbulb went off and I was like, ‘Maybe, I keep my business and refocus it.’ So that’s what we did.” But they couldn’t do it at home. Pimento cheese is considered a high-risk product and required more specialized space and equipment to produce. So she rented space in a local kitchen, though found out quickly it didn’t quite fit her needs. All that changed when she met Bailey Foster.
“I happened to be at a women’s meeting for Women Talking Food, and that’s how I met Bailey,” Cook says. Foster told her about her vision for Real Good Kitchen, a startup commercial kitchen that would not only provide space, but also incubate food-based businesses. Cook fell in love with the concept. The kitchen would not only be able to offer her the equipment needed to produce her product, but also classes on product costs, marketing, and more. Not to mention more convenient kitchen times. She signed on as one of the original members.
The Shared Space is Born
Shared kitchens have been growing in popularity over the last decade. A 2020 survey showed there were about 600 shared kitchen facilities across the U.S. that year, and that number continues to grow. It was Foster’s experience with one that led her to create Real Good Kitchen in Knoxville.
“My first experience with a shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator was in San Francisco where I lived in the early 2000s,” she says. The California-based La Cocina, “had such an incredible impact on the food industry and ecosystem in San Francisco and in the Bay area as a whole, helping to create so many opportunities for people to be successful in business.” It created a pipeline of resources and opportunities for its members.
This idea of bringing equity, mentorship, and opportunity to the culinary world spoke to Foster, and when she moved back to Knoxville after almost 25 years away, she found that the landscape of food in East Tennessee had evolved. There were downtown redevelopments, thriving farmers’ markets, and local breweries. Her vision for a commercial kitchen was emerging.
“I wanted to create a kind of facility in the community where folks who might not have the opportunities or the experience or the capital could start their own business but could do so at lower risk and costs,” Foster says.
She also wanted the facility to be high-quality and attractive to those who were “much more experienced in the industry, or maybe wanted to try out new concepts or do R&D for new products.” And the 2,500-square-foot kitchen has become exactly that to the businesses who sign on as members.
Dry storage space, a walk-in cooler and freezer, group sourcing, loading and delivery access, not to mention 24/7 access and low overhead, came together to provide an ideal setting for people looking to expand their offerings or test their product feasibility.
Vic Scott, who owns Seoul Brothers with her brother Josh Coates, started using the kitchen when their business was just beginning. “Incubator kitchens are a great way for people who have these great ideas and amazing products to get into a space that will help teach them how to be a business owner,” Scott says, “and how to take their product…and turn it into a recipe for success.” She and Coates continued using the kitchen well into their early stages in Marble City Market, their current location.
Foster and her team—there are only five of them, “small, but mighty,” she’d say—work to ensure the kitchen operations run smoothly. But there is so much more that goes into the creation of new food-based products and companies, she says. “It can be kind of daunting to figure out, for example if you grow your own peppers, how do I make those into hot sauce and bottle that and get it onto shelves at local grocery stores? And how do I do that safely and legally? Then how do I scale that process? We help with all of that.”
On top of assembling knowledgeable team members, Foster partners with community experts from different industries, making the offerings at Real Good Kitchen and the process of building a food business a more comprehensive one, whether that’s helping with designing a logo, sorting legal issues, setting up payroll, or creating a basic business plan. Some classes already exist at the kitchen, but Foster is working on a slew of new courses for members. All eyes will be on Real Good Kitchen as that programming evolves.
Nearly 70 food-based businesses have utilized the resources at Real Good Kitchen over its short two-year life span, including everything from food trucks and bakers looking to expand their at-home products to existing restaurateurs in need of R&D space for new menus, staff training, and more. In the process, they’ve connected with fellow members of the culinary community.
This collaboration piece—which Foster calls her most important role—rings out most when talking to current and former food business owners about the kitchen. Put dozens of various businesses in one space and partnerships organically begin to form.
“We were surrounded by people who were seasoned, who had been in the business for a while and some people who were new, just like us,” Scott says. The kitchen provided a space for best practices to be shared and collaborations to form. “That’s part of what being a small business owner is about in Knoxville, cultivating relationships with other businesses and supporting each other, helping each other grow.” And while Seoul Brothers no longer utilizes the kitchen space, they remain deeply connected to past and present businesses that do.
Foster believes in the potential for food to bring people together, “to create common language and common experience,” she says. “That’s not for everybody, but I think more often than not it creates a real advantage for the businesses here…It can be lonely and hard to run a business and we want to help with that in whatever way we can.”
This year, Foster launches the Real Good Kitchen Foundation, which will offer scholarships to entrepreneurs utilizing kitchen resources. “We’re working to reach more folks,” she says, adding that accessibility is the goal. “I would hope that we can try to address all the barriers as they come,” Foster adds, whether that’s cost, language, or maybe someday even childcare.