Union Kitchen Cofounder Jonas Singer: ‘We’re Building the City We Want to Live In’
At 1776 we love partnering with local companies. That’s why we’ve always enjoyed working with Union Kitchen, a food incubator based in Northeast D.C. Union Kitchen fosters aspiring, local restauranteurs—”restaurantrepreneurs”—by connecting them with business opportunities and providing a space in which they can work.
Union Kitchen is our featured caterer throughout Challenge Festival, and they’re starting off big at tonight’s opening party. Union Kitchen’s companies will offer live chef stations featuring specialties inspired by the countries we visited throughout our Challenge Cup travels.
One of the minds behind Union Kitchen is Jonas Singer, a Chevy Chase native who has spent the majority of his career working in nonprofits. Singer and his friend, Cullen Gilchrist, opened the popular Blind Dog Cafe in the Shaw neighborhood. When they realized how many challenges small food businesses face, they decided to open Union Kitchen to help solve some of the problems.
What is your background, and how did that shape your vision to start a food incubator?
My friend Cullen and I decided to open up the Blind Dog Cafe. We lived in the Shaw/Joy Park area and we just wanted to build something for ourselves, and we thought it’d be a good opportunity and fun. We built the cafe and from that experience we started to get some real insight into the challenges of small businesses, specifically the challenges that small food businesses face. That led us to eventually opening Union Kitchen, mainly just as a series of solutions to problems we were encountering that we figured we could solve—not only for ourselves but for all the friends we made in the food world—and that’s really how we got started.
What was toughest part about getting Union Kitchen off the ground?
Truthfully, we moved quickly: From the time we signed the lease to the time the doors opened, was about six weeks. I think the main struggles that we found were in understanding the full scope of what it takes to open up a new building, dealing with government regulations and finding customers, etc. As we are about to open a second facility, it’s the same sort of thing. There’s always just more complexity layered on top of everything you do, and just trying to learn how to muddle through that complexity is the most challenging thing.
How does Union Kitchen work? Can you walk me through what happens a new member joins?
Union Kitchen is a business incubator primarily for small food businesses. We have over 50 different businesses operating out of here, which are food trucks, caterers, butchers, bakers, beverage makers, packaged food producers, as well as things like social media consultants, nonprofits, accountants, bookkeepers, and so on.
What we do is three different tiers of service.The most basic is that we’re taking care of the facility. We’re enforcing food safety, making sure the place is passing health inspections, we’re keeping the place clean, we’re providing equipment, we’re taking care of a lot of the capital costs for people, we’re generally lowering the barrier to entry and then making sure that everything is working around the building, which is a pretty huge value-add in the food world.
Then we’re going out and helping people with technical assistance and connecting them with all the different professional services they need. Whether it’s us sitting down and doing one-on-one consultation with businesses about their packaging, pricing, their PR, their staffing and training, as well as connecting people with bookkeepers, accountants, web developers and lawyers, all of whom we negotiate discounts to help the businesses have lower cost structure. We also do that with food, so we’re out there trying to get our businesses the best and most preferential food terms for themselves, whether bulk buying, discounts, better ordering schedules.
And then the most important thing we do is helping members get their products to market. We’re out there helping to sell and make money for the members so that, by being a part of Union Kitchen, though they do pay us a monthly membership fee, they’re also getting a huge amount of increased cash flow because we’re actually sending them business and opening up more opportunities for business for them.
What is the value of local businesses? Why is it important to keep them thriving in D.C.?
Our main mantra here is to build the city we want to live in. So a lot of times when people talk about their neighborhood or where they live, a lot of times the landlot they’re referring to is a small business, whether its a cafe, a bar, a restaurant, a clothing shop or a jewelry store. For us it was about helping to build a local culture that emanates out of small business.
Furthermore, giving people who have a passion and a love for a craft an opportunity not only for themselves, but also to create more economic wealth opportunities for everyone around the city. So for us, what we do is really targeted toward building the culture of the city and making it the city we want to live in.
What role do your partners play, why are they so important to Union Kitchen’s success?
The more people we can touch, the more people that we’re able to engage with in commerce, whether we’re consuming their product or they’re consuming ours. It also just helps to create a large network and a community of people who can share ideas, who can innovate, who can help push the envelope. The only way that we’re going to get better is by exposing ourselves to different things that are happening around the city.
It’s really building up that community in D.C., and creating opportunities for it to thrive by having events, by participating in things like Challenge Cup, by making those interconnections a lot of opportunity comes. As we build that network and groups like 1776 and members come in, they can plug into our network and suddenly through that network we’re building more opportunities for other people as well as ourselves. And hopefully that gives both of our organizations a lot of clout in creating the city we want as opposed to letting other dictate that for us.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a similar venture?
One of the most valuable things we do is we stop people before they start. I would certainly advise people to do their homework and to understand the codes and the regulatory environment they’re about to walk into. Once people do that, the single most important thing is for people to put their head down and just do it. There’s always a mountain of reasons to not do something, and one very powerful reason to do something is really all it should take.
We meet a lot of people who come up with a whole lot of reasons why they can’t start or why they shouldn’t. Fundamentally my suggestion to them is just do it, just start, just move. The most important thing is making sure people want to buy your stuff, so if you are selling your product it’s always to figure out a lot of the other answers, but if you take too much time figuring out all of the other answers before you know if you have a good business, you’re not going to get the results you want. So my answer to people is make up your mind, push through and solve problems as they come.
What’s next for Union Kitchen?
We’re expanding to a second facility. It’s about two times as big as our current facility in an area of D.C. called Ivy City, so we’re really focused on that. Our goal is to engage more businesses, to allow the businesses we do work with to be able to grow more and to succeed more, and for us to continue to tilt the scales in favor of small businesses.
This year in D.C. there will be 10 to 11 current or former Union Kitchen members running storefronts throughout the city, and I look forward to the day 10 years from now when there are 40 businesses running storefronts around the city that we’ve had a role in helping to launch and succeed. For us the focus is really tightening up what we’re doing, expanding it and increasing our footprint and rate of success, and expanding the opportunities for the businesses working inside Union Kitchen.