Creative Chef Kitchens

Passion for food takes root in an incubator

Using the high-tech incubator model, entrepreneur Neelima Gogumalla offers resources to the budding cook, baker or candymaker. Her operation, called Creative Chef Kitchens, provides a full commercial kitchen to rent for those with aspirations to sell their inspired cuisine to the public.

Gogumalla opened her space almost a year ago on Manchester Road in Derry. As she recommends for all potential clients, she did her due diligence in researching business models that help sprout new "small batch" food operations. A few incubators were supported by local government, and one was more daring and asked for a part ownership in clients' businesses. "There are only about 100 shared kitchens around the world. I just tried to adapt what I found to this corner," she says. She chose Derry for its proximity to Boston suburbs and simply for the free parking. "It's just so much easier to park close by and not have to lug ingredients and finished products down the street," she adds.

Creative Chef Kitchens offers more than an inspected, fully equipped kitchen. Gogumalla funnels down everything the startup food chef may need to establish a successful business. She recommends that people write a business plan first: "What are you going to make and how are you going to market it?"

These are key questions because she recommends staying away from over-saturated markets. She would probably discourage someone from baking cupcakes, but Gogumalla adds, "If a product addresses dietary needs or is ethnic-based, it will be possible to get it to market." She suggests that people are practical in the beginning and think not about making a profit, but just not creating a loss.

Offering advice may be the first of services offered by Gogumalla, but Creative Chef Kitchens also provides startups with everything from licensing and trademarks to packaging ideas to design resources to label regulations. Maybe most importantly, Gogumalla helps newbies market their fledgling products.

Jennifer Marie LeClair of The Epicure's Jar with her gluten-free granola. This one is flavored with rose petals.
Photo by Susan Laughlin

Once an individual has gone through applying for a license, decided on packaging and worked out labeling details, she recommends they send their product to the University of Maine, where they assess shelf life, storage reliability and quality after reheating. They also can arrive at those numbers needed for nutritional labeling. Once the product is ready for prime time, mass production can begin.

Creative Chef Kitchens' space can be rented for about $25 per hour. There are eight work stations with gas grills and separate ovens for baking, roasting and all the other heavy equipment a chef might need. Gogumalla says the blast chiller is the most popular tool; it gets products cooled and ready to vacuum-seal quite quickly. There is about 1,600 square feet of kitchen space, plus storage space for ingredients and personal tools.

Clients vary on how they use the kitchen. Several come in two to three times a week while others come in just twice a month. Booking hours are flexible for seasonal demands. During the holidays, several private individuals came in to bake their Christmas cookies and jams for gifts in the  commodious kitchen.

Chef Jeannine Carney runs her catering business, The Purple Puffin, out of Creative Chef Kitchens. She says, "I was looking to rent space, but when I discovered CCK, it was the perfect solution. All the equipment is brand new and there is everything you can think of, even a popcorn machine for my bourbon-caramel salted popcorn." Carney also provides catering for Tupelo events and their new dining space. The large work space allows her to prep several items at one time to save time. She even rented the space to bake a wedding cake for a friend: "I could have done it at home, but here I didn't have to worry about cat hair." Most importantly, she doesn't have to turn down work with the additional space.

For many of the clients, their food dream is at the early stages. Jennifer Marie LeClair of The Epicure's Jar is a stay-at-home mom and is plagued with Celiac's disease. She tried other gluten-free products, but couldn't find one that "hit the mark." Now she sells baking mixes, flours and a special bread crumb mixture, all using almond and coconut flours instead of other grains.

Often the first step in marketing is taking a product to a local farmers market. Gogumalla says, "It's like a test market. If people are willing to pay for your product again and again, you may be ready for wider distribution." Once chefs have the confidence to go larger, Gogumalla can offer more help. With ties in affluent communities, she travels with client products to a variety of shops in an effort to broaden distribution and demand. The small production of clients is a perfect fit for providing fresh products that are locally produced.

Jeannine Carney of the Purple Puffin, a catering company makes a stew to serve at the Tupelo.
Photo by Susan Laughlin

The local and fresh aspect of food production is what drives Gogumalla. "I could get warm and fuzzy thinking about helping people fulfill their dreams, but really I am driven by their passion and my focus is on healthy food, made locally. I try to encourage clients to buy local ingredients for their products, and we can usually put several orders together for wholesale pricing." On the health side, no one uses preservatives, only freezing to sustain shelf life, she says.

Can a startup get too successful? Gogumalla admits there is a sweet spot for production in her shop — what can be produced comfortably with one or two pairs of hands. With larger orders they could have their products made by a co-packer using their recipe. With a serious loss of control, that avenue can be disappointing, she says.

Are there any new opportunities out there for adventurous home cooks? Restaurants don't want to make their own desserts, Gogumalla reveals. Even a small  café can offer locally made desserts and that would give them an edge over a Panera Bread. She also suggests products that are unique in the marketplace or that address food allergies. She feels millennials enjoy food flavors from around the world, so ethnic products could be successful. She also warns that dairy, beef or chicken are ingredients that require FDA approval, adding another dimension to licensing and inspections.

Even though home kitchens are allowed in several New Hampshire municipalities including Derry, Gogumalla suggests a fully inspected facility is a hedge against anything going wrong. She says, "Once you have a black mark, you are pretty much done."

Gogumalla is still growing her own business, buying new equipment to help make clients more successful. Meanwhile, she is looking for investors. Since most clients travel less than 40 minutes, there are opportunities for more locations. In the near future, Gogumalla and a few clients plan to offer cooking classes on site too. 

Creative Chef Kitchen Clients

You may have seen these products on local shelves:

X Marks the Spot
Vegan bakery

Moochie's Macarons
French cookies

The Purple Puffin

The Epicure's Jar
Gluten-free products

Ducao Handmade Chocolates

KRM Chocolates
Specialty chocolates made to order

Calcutta Curry
Authentic curries

Nuts Over Fish
Nutty topping for baked or sautéed fish

Sharon's Granola
Healthy granola and bars

CrackerFudge Candy Company
Crackers dipped in chocolate

El Camino
Cuban rice

Sweet Neem Tasting Table
Small bites catering

Happy Cakes by Renee
Wedding cakes



Categories: Features