By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer Published Sep 16, 2020 at 11:01 AM

Last December, we brought you the news that Upstart Kitchen, the city's first 24/7 commercial kitchen and business incubator, was nearing the end of its construction at 4325 W. Fond du Lac Ave., hoping to gain occupancy of the space by January of 2020.

The kitchen was, in fact, completed earlier this year. On its surface, it showcases state-of-the-art commercial kitchen space including a hot food line, bakery ovens, food prep space, and a large lower-level walk-in freezer and cooler for food storage.

But when Prism Economic Development Corp. targeted a late winter or early spring opening for the new space, they had no way of predicting the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the impact it would have on the surrounding community.

Addressing food insecurity during COVID-19

Rather than pushing for a traditional opening, the kitchen swifty changed gears, refocusing their efforts on meeting the growing needs of an increasingly food insecure community. 

Pat Jones, Upstart’s kitchen manager rallied the entrepreneurs on board, effectively converting the facility into a major meal production center, which has provided over 25,000 meals (over 7,000 per month) through partners including Milwaukee County’s Housing First program, Just One More Ministry, Repairers of the Breach, Hope Street Ministries and Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church. 

Albert Yee, UpStart Kitchen’s community meals coordinator, is no stranger to large scale food operations, having spent more than two decades running vending operations at festivals and stadiums; but even he admits that the work they’ve put in has been significant.

“I’ve done big events and served thousands of people at the Super Bowl, but this is big time here,” he says, noting that the meal program will continue, thanks to generous funding from a variety of organizations.

Among them is the City of Milwaukee, which has offered transportation support for the program, as well as Ascension Wisconsin, which has donated $50,000 to subsidize UpStart Kitchen and provide diabetic-friendly and healthy meals for vulnerable residents with limited access to food during COVID-19. 

The donation will fund 6,000 meals per month through the end of the year, with 100 meals per week distributed to Ascension patients – including vulnerable seniors, high-risk moms-to-be and high-risk diabetic patients – through the Ascension Ebenezer Health Resource Center.

“Food insecurity has spiked to an unprecedented level during the pandemic and the lack of access to nutritious food is taking a toll on the health of many in our community,” said Reggie Newson, Vice President of Government and Community Services and Chief Advocacy Officer, Ascension Wisconsin. “As we look for ways to serve the most vulnerable populations affected by the coronavirus crisis, we are grateful for the opportunity to support UpStart Kitchen entrepreneurs and work together with innovation and compassion to improve the health of our community.”

Ascension is just one of many sustaining partners who have contributed to the work of UpStart Kitchen, including Bader Philanthropies, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the We Raise Foundation, Parklawn Assembly of God, Elmbrook Church, Chris Abele and Paul and Betsy Keppeler. 

It’s much needed support, notes Bishop Harvy, who serves as Prism EDC’s President and CEO. “Where there is no vision, people perish; but where there is no provision, vision perishes,” he said in a speech at the celebratory opening of the new kitchen. 

More than a commercial kitchen

“Upstart Kitchen is far more than just a commercial kitchen for rent,” says Titi Lagundoye, UpStart tenant and owner of Taste of Africa catering. “It’s a community that supports the building of small businesses.”

Lagundoye, who came to Milwaukee over 30 years ago and earned her Associate’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from MATC, says that UpStart was vital to her journey, providing assistance in obtaining her food licensure and offering her training in food costing and marketing. 

And she is not alone.

“There are many would-be entrepreneurs who simply lack the resources and knowledge to launch their businesses,” noted County Executive David Crowley at the opening for the new kitchen on Sept. 15. “But UpStart Kitchen has stepped up for them, giving them the support they need to succeed.” 

cupcakes from Auntie Bunny's Sweets

Right now, UpStart Kitchen is home-base for 23 licensed food entrepreneurs, with another 17 in various stages of the licensure approval process (and 75 more on a waiting list). Take a look at them and you’ll see a diversity of businesses from bakers and caterers to food service operators and food truck owners.

Among them are: 

Auntie Bunny’s Sweets

Owner: Bonita Goodman-Johnson
Category: Desserts (her cupcakes are pictured above)
Specialty: Caramel cake
More informationfacebook.com/Auntie-Bunnys-Sweets

K.O’s Delicious Desserts

Owners: Olivia and Kaye Muhammad, two sisters who’ve been sharing their family recipes for years
Category: Desserts
Specialties: Cupcakes and cheesecakes in non-traditional flavors like sweet potato and butter pecan
More informationkosdeliciousdesserts.com

O Taste N See

Owner: Michelle Harris, MATC culinary student who aspires not only to feed hungry bellies, but souls as well
Category: Catering, pop-ups, personal chef services
Specialty: Vegan soul food
Ultimate goal: To own her own food truck
More informationfacebook.com/O-Taste-N-See-Cafe

Pound 4 Pound Cakes

Owner: Nesha Beamon, whose kids launched a Facebook page for her business as a birthday gift
Category: Desserts, cakes
Specialty: Her grandmothers recipe for pound cake
More infomationpound4poundcakesbynesha.com

Richmond’s Catering

Owners: Clyde and Dionne Richmond, former restaurant owners who gave up their business three years ago when Clyde was diagnosed with cancer. 
Category: Catering 
Specialty: Barbeque and soul food; known for their rib tips and grilled chicken
Ultimate goal: To launch a food truck
More informationfacebook.com/RichmondsFoodForYourSoulCatering

Synfully Delicious

Owner: Breanna McIntee started off sharing her recipes on YouTube, but was encouraged by friends and family to take her food business to the next level
Category: Catering, pop-ups
Specialty: Cajun/ creole
More informationsynfullydelicious.com

Tasteful Events Catering

Owner: Alicia “Thee Chef” Green
Category: Catering, personal chef services
Specialty: Known for her creative vision, housemade spice blends and sauces
More informationtastefuleventscatering.com

Taste of Africa

Owner: Titi Lagundoye, a Nigerian native and former restaurant owner who is rebooting her business
Category: Catering, chef’s dinners
Specialty: Nigerian food (Joloff rice, spinach stew, chicken kebabs)
Ultimate goal: Open a restaurant
More information: Call Titi Lagundoye at (414) 326-7834

Tiny Bites

Owners: Destiny Davis and Brien Roufus, two professionals who aspire to making a difference in children’s lives by increasing the quality of food served in inner city childcare facilities
Category: Food service, child care and schools
Specialties: Healthy snacks, meals: fresh juices, baby food
Ultimate goal: Thriving widespread business, expansion to include schools
More information: Email tinybitesmke@gmail.com

Wacky Weiner & Sausages

Owner: Joshua Haecker, two-year food cart veteran
Category: Food cart"
Specialty: Creatively topped hot dogs and sausages
Look for Haecker's cart around Downtown Milwaukee

Prospective tenant: Kay Catering

Owner: Kayla West, recent MATC graduate who is working on licensure
Category: Catering, personal chef services
Specialty: global, international flavors. 

“Even going to culinary school doesn’t teach you everything you need to launch a business,” says West. “So I’m working with UpStart to really get what I need to start mine.”

Want to support the work of Upstart Kitchen? 

Are you excited about the mission of UpStart Kitchen? Want to do more to support their work?

Here are four easy things you can do right now.

  • Follow Upstart Kitchen on Facebook and Instagram. Learn about what they do and spread the word.

  • Support Upstart Kitchen entrepreneurs by purchasing their products, hiring them to cater events and recommending them to others.

  • Donate to UpStart Kitchen to sustain their work.

  • Volunteer to share your skills and expertise in entrepreneurism, business, finance, etc. for aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Each of these things is easy to do. But not one of them is small. In fact, bolstering inner city entrepreneurs is a major key to promote positive change for our city overall.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Emerald Mills, founder of Diverse Dining and UpStart Kitchen organizational partner: “When you change people’s economic statuses...when you change their trajectories,” she says. “You literally change their worlds.” 

And that is just the beginning.

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.