When two guys opened a small new restaurant in Washington D.C. called The Blind Dog Café, they had no idea their chocolate chip cookie would put them on the map. They also had no idea how to produce enough of these chocolate chip cookies to satisfy the overwhelming demand. So, they bought a warehouse with way too much space.
And Union Kitchen was born.
Imagine a co-working kitchen—a space where producers and chefs of all shapes and sizes come together to create their products under one roof. Union Kitchen has taken the traditional model for starting a food business and turned it on its head. Entrepreneurs now have access to full production and distribution facilities without having to worry about facing the unknown.
IVY Magazine sat down with D.C. Member Josh Hopkins, currently the Director of Finance at Union Kitchen, to talk about this exciting new business model and how it’s changing the world of food start-ups.
Josh is an IVY Member (DC). Connect and collaborate with him here.
How is Union Kitchen changing the way we think about starting a new food business?
It’s a vertically-integrated food system. Through Union Kitchen, you can make a product, move it, and sell it.
Just come in with a strong idea and a gut to pursue it unabashedly; we have everything from commercial space to staffing and our own distribution structure with 64-odd retailers. We also have the gravitational force to get our members preferential pricing. At each of those points in the process, businesses can fail, but our system makes it more seamless. It’s not just a commercial kitchen; it’s an entire system.
So Union Kitchen makes things much easier for food entrepreneurs?
Union Kitchen’s innovative model is changing the market. Most food businesses take 1-2 years from development to figuring out regulatory process and becoming legit business to packaging and labeling, then years before actual distribution. We can get businesses to national distribution in 6-8 months. The velocity with which our businesses get products on shelf and cash flow in is changing the industry paradigm. It’s an exciting place to be.
What motivates you to get up every day and go to work?
A lot of things. An amazing sense of urgency. The question asked by many entrepreneurs: are we going to be millionaires today or are we going bankrupt?
I’m also inspired by the entrepreneurs and visionaries at Union Kitchen, who create amazing products everyday, right in front of me. It comes down to the people.
It’s great knowing that that 100+ food businesses have their own powerful missions. One might be employing folks out of jail who otherwise wouldn’t have employment opportunities, while another just a couple of spaces over offers high-tier organic products and good food that can help both a cancer patient and a young mother in Texas maintain a holistic and healthy lifestyle.
How did you find your way into Union Kitchen?
I have a background in entrepreneurial finance, and I was working on alternative financing loans and other investments for businesses that don’t attract private equity investors or bank loans. One investment I underwrote was to Union Kitchen. I had worked with so many food businesses, helping them in the planning process, and was excited about Union Kitchen’s model, which combines expertise with capital to reduce barriers for bourgeoning small food businesses to grow. The model excited me and I curious to learn how you leverage capital to get good businesses off the ground and on a path to success.
I guess you never know where life will take you.
I knew that investment banking and the traditional private equity/venture capital path wasn’t for me. I prefer managerial finance; I feel better equipped to connect dots. Block by block, community by community, you can really develop an area, as long as you have the proper set of public and private partners. I love working macro to micro, and back up.
What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Read everything. Read, read, read. People make assumptions about what is and what isn’t. Don’t allow others’ opinions determine what you do. By reading and understanding, you can make decisions for yourself. Read, do, and execute with reckless abandonment until you achieve your goals. Know the world’s ins and outs so you can properly create the world you want to live in.
The world is a big, beautiful place. Get to know it and enjoy yourself along the way.
And eat good food?
Yes. And eat good food.
What we consume translates into who we are and what we become. Right now, we are creating a world—a physical planet—of low quality. We create pollution, economic and social disparity, land ownership issues. These issues are only worsening as our population grows.
If we focus on what and how we cultivate, we can change not only food but also the world around us. We have the opportunity to create a beautiful world and it all starts with food.
IVY is a social university dedicated to inspiring connection, collaboration, and growth. To learn more, visit IVY.com.