In the heart of downtown Rochester is County Monroe’s only community kitchen. Launched in October 2020 in the Sibley building, Commissioner is Rochester’s premier food business incubator.
Last week, I visited the site and chatted with Laura Fox O’Sullivan, President of The Commissary, to learn more about this exciting company. She is also vice-president of the not-for-profit Rochester Downtown Development Corporation (DRDC) and has been a core member of The Commissary since its inception.
The project was first designed in 2016 by a group of economic development and urban planning experts who visited Rochester who recommended it to DRDC. O’Sullivan and Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, President of DRDC, loved the idea.
“We thought there was a need and a demand for it,” O’Sullivan said. “As part of our mission at DRDC, we felt it was a mission because it was about creating economic opportunities for all types of people and bringing life to the downtown core. “
From there, DRDC first needed County Monroe’s approval to open a communal kitchen, which is normally illegal. Luckily for them, the county granted them approval after providing proof that food safety would be a top priority. Once they were given the green light for the project, the small DRDC team had to begin the monstrous task of raising around two million dollars. Their biggest donor was the United States Economic Development Administration, which gave them a grant of almost $ 1 million. The rest of the money came from a wide variety of donors, including organizations such as the Rochester City School District, Wegmans, and NYS Empire State Development. Donations over $ 500 are displayed on a fun flame-themed wall in the Performance Kitchen. “It has really been a community project,” noted O’Sullivan.
Construction officially began in December 2019, but has slowed down due to COVID-19. Luckily for them, construction was finally completed and The Commissary officially launched less than a year later in October 2020. “We were very quiet from October to March and then [in] In April / May we started to get a lot busier, ”said O’Sullivan. “I think people were starting to feel more confident in the ability to start their business. I hope the trust continues. “
There are three main sections of The Commissary: the Performance Kitchen, the Prep Kitchen, and the Storage. The performance kitchen can be used to host private meals, events and tastings. Some people even film video workshops and tutorials. The prep kitchen has tables and equipment that are rented by the hour through a scheduling system. Storage cages allow members to keep their ingredients safely on-site and are also available for hire. This system helps reduce the cost of entry into the food industry by eliminating the need for members to own a professional kitchen and display cabinet or food truck. O’Sullivan pointed out that “we are all on a flexible and affordable approach to launching your food business. “
The Commissary currently has 43 members. 57% of companies belong to BIPOC and 52% are owned by women. The businesses vary from baked goods, sauces, teas, barbecues, soups, tacos and more.
Three of these 43 are regulars: Biscotti Brewers (gluten-free bakery), Que Chèvere (Puerto Rican cuisine) and Le Petit Poutine (poutine, of course). Lisa Malavez, owner and chef of Que Chèvere, uses the Commissary’s take out window to serve lunch Tuesday through Friday. Kayla Sandoval, owner and pastry chef of Biscotti Brewers, sells her produce in many markets around the city and is having her first showcase kitchen event this coming Friday. Le Petit Poutine is perhaps Rochester’s busiest food truck and can be found in the Commissary’s kitchen almost every day until they’ve finished building their own brick and mortar location. You can follow members and all events through their Instagram @roccommissary.
O’Sullivan hopes that with the help of The Commissary’s incubation services, businesses will begin to be on-site more regularly as they grow. She said to me, “What we’re here for is to provide them with an affordable, flexible space so that they can launch their businesses, do a lot of market testing, learn lessons, and then with all that knowledge. go out and make a decision on their next step, then help them along the way. “
In addition to providing its members with professional cuisine, The Commissary also hosts workshops to help members with their business strategies and has an “Entrepreneur in Residence” program that connects members with a local food industry entrepreneur who can help them grow their business.
Asked about her goals for the commissary in 2022, O’Sullivan said, “I would like us to continue to promote what the commissary is because there are so many aspiring food entrepreneurs. [in Rochester]. My goal is to help people who want to have a food business to legitimize their business, to professionalize what they do, and also to see that there are so many opportunities for that.
In terms of growth for Rochester, she said, “We’ve made a lot of progress. COVID[-19] was definitely a blow to downtown, but I think there are a lot of people coming back from other cities who thought they might never come back. That comes with expectations for certain things, for really good food and things to do, and I think that helps raise the bar for what we want for our community. “
And as to how The Commissary plays into that, “We like to think that with this [The Commissary], we are playing a small role in downtown revitalization.