By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published Dec 18, 2019 at 9:56 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

The end of construction is in sight for Upstart Kitchen, the city's first 24/7 commercial kitchen and business incubator located at 4325 W. Fond du Lac Ave.

The new facility, which was created with the goal of assisting food entrepreneurs from traditionally underserved urban neighborhoods in getting a start in the food and beverage sector, has been in the works for nearly two years.

But Tom Keppeler, executive director of PRISM Economic Development Corp. the nonprofit behind UpStart, says they hope to have occupancy of the space in the next few weeks.

A commercial kitchen with a mission

The seed for the incubator kitchen was planted years ago when Walter Harvey, Sr. Pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God, proposed the idea of opening a commercial kitchen space at the church.

"One of their elders had gotten his start using the church kitchen," says Keppeler, who met Harvey in 2005 at a Brewers game. "And it inspired him to ask the question: how can we better serve our community?"

It was a question that persisted. In spring of 2016, the two friends were musing over coffee, and the question was raised again, in a different form. "What could we do better together?"

At the time, Keppeler was on staff at Elmbrook Church, and their conversation led to a meeting with business leaders from each congregation during which talked about ways to work together and further their service in the community.

In the months that followed, the committee decided to move forward with the idea of a shared-space kitchen to assist aspiring food entrepreneurs. They also made the decision to operate the kitchen under the direction of PRISM, a nonprofit organization founded by Parklawn in 2011 with the mission of providing the Sherman Park community access to resources that promote sustained economic growth and well-being for its residents. Around the same time, Keppeler’s position at Elmbrook was eliminated, freeing him up to take the helm of PRISM full-time.

As time passed, conversations moved forward. But they hit a critical point in August of 2016 when unrest led to violence in the Sherman Park neighborhood.

"It lit a spark in all of us," says Keppeler. "And it really affirmed our feelings that we needed to find a way to make the project happen."

By 2017, they’d applied for Wisconsin planning grant which gave them some of the support they needed to conduct market research and create a business plan. From there, they raised funds to activate the grant, attracting the attention of both private donors and foundations including We Raise, who set the plan in motion with a $50,000 grant.

As part of their research, they consulted with Adam Haen who'd created the business plan for FEED Kitchens in Madison, WI, a successful incubator model established in late 2013.

"As we looked more deeply into the kitchen concept, we realized the church location wouldn’t work for what we wanted to do," says Keppeler. "So we began looking for a space that would work to build out."

Serendipitously, a member of the church had acquired the building on Fond du Lac, allowing PRISM to move forward with their plan in a space just blocks away from the church. They hired Clarence Morse of Dark Horse Dev MKE for construction on the project and built out 1,350 square feet of kitchen space, including three distinct spaces: a hot line, a bakery and a sandwich prep area. They also built in shared office space for kitchen staff and member clients.

Accessible workspace for aspiring entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs will pay rent based on the ZIP code in which they reside, with rates starting at $14 per hour for entrepreneurs in 23 target ZIP codes (in which more than 30 percent of the population live in low-income census tracts). Rates go up to $16 per hour for Milwaukee residents outside the target ZIP code area and $18 per hour for suburban member tenants. Refrigerator, freezer and dry storage space is also available to rent for a fee of $10 per week.

Keppeler says that the demand for the kitchen has already exceeded early forecasts for Upstart.

"Our initial forecast was to have 10-12 member clients," he says. "And it looks like we’ll have close to double that. Right now we have 28 potential clients who’ve made it through the first stages of our vetting process."

The entrepreneurs operate a variety of food-based businesses, from bread bakers and dessert makers to food carts and trucks, caterers and small food product manufacturers.

In addition to commercial kitchen space, UpStart Kitchen has also partnered with various organizations including the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation and the Marquette Law Clinics to offer member clients resources for operating their businesses including education, business coaching and financial assistance.

"The idea is that people don’t stay here long term," says Keppeler. "They come in, we offer them support and they meet with success so that they can go off on their own, start a food truck or open a brick and mortar shop."

For more information, visit upstartkitchen.org or follow UpStart Kitchen on Facebook.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer

Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.

Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon. 

Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.