Written by Callie Waldman, Forage Kitchen
Forage Kitchen is a commissary and shared incubator kitchen in the heart of Uptown Oakland. Nestled amongst retail locations and maker warehouses, we exist to support the local food economy by supporting its producers. Our community members find this support through our physical shared kitchen space, business support & promotional help, and through our network of like-minded food business owners. We’re a lot of other things as well. Beyond just our commissary, we’re also a small batch copacking facility as well as an event space for both private bookings and community gatherings. Attached to our kitchen we have a small cafe that houses rotating up-and-coming restaurants, offering low rent to minimize risk as they transition towards moving into their own permanent space.
Though we officially opened our doors in 2016, leading up to that moment took years of thoughtful decisions and physical build-out. In 2012, cousins and co-founders Iso Rabins and Matt Johansen began their journey in building Forage inspired by their own experience as food entrepreneurs. Their driving motivation was to create an experience and a kitchen for others that they wished they’d had themselves while navigating the industry.
Iso, having worked in shared kitchens for years while hosting his Wild Kitchen underground dinners, had seen all the ways shared spaces fell short, and the destructive impact that had on the community. This experience was motivation enough to want to create something better. Iso’s focus had always been food and food makers; launching Forage Kitchen just felt like the right next step.
If you ask the cousins, Iso will tell you that getting Matt onboard took some courting. Matt’s expertise in business management, his previous partnership in opening SF’s still-thriving Hayes Valley Biergarten, and his effortless knack for connecting with just about anyone, balanced Iso’s vision and made him the perfect co-founder. Iso knew he needed Matt onboard and over a handful of beers and long talks at family reunions, the motivation and the dream was mutual.
Once established and open, Iso and Matt needed someone to flesh out programming and act as a direct line of support for the growing community, and so they introduced a third partner, Callie Waldman, to run daily operations. Callie also came from extensive food industry experience but also brought with her the relationship building component, having overseen employee engagement and company culture during the early stages of Imperfect Foods. Focused on honesty, communication and trust, this small but mighty trio oversees all aspects of the business.
When operating at full capacity, Forage congruently runs four arms of business: membership, small batch co-packing, events, and a cafe. Each functions as an integral piece of the puzzle, harmoniously interwoven to support our community at a multitude of crossroads.
Our primary focus and the reason Forage exists, is to support our members. Each of our members own and operate their own small food business and have 24/7 access to our kitchen through reserving tables using our online booking system. Pricing is tiered and ranges from $21-28 per hour depending on frequency. Additionally, we offer an $18 per hour rate between 10pm-6am to accommodate those chefs who prefer off-peak schedules. Once in the kitchen, members have equal access to our industrial equipment as well as the option to rent storage depending on their needs. Folks are surprised to hear that we typically fluctuate between 40-50 memberships at a time, however the variety of scheduling needs means that we hardly see conflicts in booking or overcrowding. Our members range from pastry chefs to soul food caterers, bagel producers to homemade pickle and boutique sauce companies. A vast majority are women-owned. The kitchen is equipped with a gamut of industrial equipment in order to accommodate many types of businesses. We have grills and deep fryers, 4 convection ovens, a total of 12 burners, a 30qt standup mixer, and an entire rack of smallware equipment available.
Small Batch Copacking
Through our small batch copacking program, we lay out a pathway for businesses to grow with us. Once companies are a little further along, this program enables food producers to scale even bigger, while we take care of everything operationally from sourcing ingredients to label compliance to packaging. For small scale food producers, outsourcing production allows for their time and energy to focus on sales and marketing so that they can get one step closer towards their dream of large scale distribution. We’ve worked with a wide variety of clients but our areas of expertise mainly focus on bone broth, cookies, sauces and spice blends.
One of the joys of running Forage is to foster our growing community. We find significance in this not just among our members, but within the greater community of Oakland. Our central location and spacious outdoor area makes Forage ideal for bringing people together. We’re a short walking distance from bars, cafes, and venues in every direction, and BART is just a 10 minute walk down the street, making us accessible to the rest of the Bay. Outside of the current covid circumstances, our summer calendar is typically stacked with all kinds of events. We host weddings and rehearsal dinners, holiday parties and cooking classes, birthdays and anniversaries. In the warmer seasons we offer monthly outdoor movie nights and we partner with Sofar Sounds, hosting regular live music nights. Every First Friday of the month, we open our doors once again and participate in the city of Oakland’s monthly First Friday event where our members are encouraged to set up vendor tents and sell their food; an excellent opportunity for their own exposure and testing out the market.
Connected to the kitchen and facing the street, our cafe serves as a rotating space for new restaurants to launch their temporary home and gain traction as they test menu concepts, hire staff, and work out operational kinks before moving into their permanent retail location. Some of these restaurants include: Smokin Woods BBQ, World Famous Hotboys, and Shawarmaji. Regardless of who’s serving food, patrons can enjoy patio seating and a cold, local beer on tap.
HOW WE FOSTER INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Under most circumstances, the production and sales of food in California requires the use of a certified commissary kitchen. At the most basic level, this is what we provide. In addition to that, there’s a lengthy list of permits and licences that producers need to apply for, some which come from the county, others which come from the city or state. There’s a lot of red tape and often, even knowing where to begin with the administrative side of this industry can be daunting enough to cause roadblocks. This is again where we come in. As part of our onboarding service and at no extra charge, we offer additional support with new members by identifying and helping complete all the applications they need.
Undeniably, our biggest avenue of support exists through our active community. It’s inspiring to see members helping one another as some have been in the industry for decades, while others are stepping foot into a commercial kitchen for their very first time. We’ve seen collaborations emerge, like Gourmet Puff (a Nigerian doughnut company) popping up with Shawarmaji (a Jordanian Shawarma restaurant). Internally, we use slack as a way to make sure all members can easily connect with one another and we have a couple channels specifically intended for companies to post things like kickstarter campaigns, new product launches, or simply to spread the word that they’re hiring. In the last few months we also set up a little shelf in our cafe where patrons can purchase shelf staple items, all made at Forage. We sell products like The Final Sauce, Goldi’s Spice Blends, and Claudine Hot Sauce. In this sense, we find ways to interweave the various components of Forage such that our members’ businesses are amplified.
Since the pandemic began affecting California in mid March, It’s no secret that small food businesses have suffered. As event cancellations soared and remote work within the bay area tech scene became status quo, most of the catering companies that worked out of Forage suddenly had nothing to cook for. In an effort to get creative, we worked with members to develop a ghost kitchen model, offering our space as a pickup site for any catering companies willing or able to shift into strictly pickup & delivery. We’ve seen several companies successfully make the switch, however with the exorbitant percentage that corporate delivery platforms take from each ticket item, relying strictly on the apps is hardly feasible. In this vein, we’re huge proponents of encouraging customers to pick up food directly from the restaurant whenever possible.
Though business has been undeniably slow for the first several months, our kitchen remains open, 24/7 as it’s always been. And, as it’s become increasingly clear that we’re in this for the indeterminable long haul, we’re starting to see some shifts. We’ve started hearing from folks who’ve completely changed direction to make ends meet; A previously touring musician who decided to bottle and sell chili oil; A furloughed Pastry Chef who shifted her focus to participate in a national bake sale, benefiting the Black Lives Matter movement. When outdoor dining opened in Oakland, that enabled us to once again capitalize on our outdoor space after months of it laying dormant. We replaced our large picnic tables with wine barrel seating designed to fit 2-4 people instead of 8-10. Our cafe extended its hours, and we folded in a Happy Hour to encourage customers to stay and have a drink rather than just taking their food to go.
In all honesty it’s hard to say exactly when we’ll be operating at full capacity again, or what that will even look like as it’s a constant moving target. That said, we’re optimistic. We’re seeing the beginnings of private event inquiries for 2021, and we’re also starting to talk about hosting small, distanced gatherings. Additionally, we’re working on launching our own cafe concept in the fall of 2020, focused on maximizing our outdoor space. While uncertainty is always the case, covid has been an abrupt and potent awakening to this truth and so we move forward with flexibility, creativity and patience; committed now more than ever, to offer a space and a community that supports our local food economy.