Entrepreneurial dreams simmering with help of Blue Oven Kitchens


Shalini Rao makes food and spices at Blue Oven Kitchen that she sells at the Union Street Farmers Market held on Bo Diddley Plaza.

Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent
Published: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.

Local spice-maker Shalini Rao tossed tan seasoning onto a layer of olive oil heating in a silver pot — followed by light-yellow coriander powder and red pepper — as she spent another Wednesday morning cooking at Blue Oven Kitchens.

Wrapped in a burgundy apron with her dark hair tied back, Rao dumped diced tomatoes into the bubbling spice mixture as she began making a chickpea soup her customers could taste later that day at the Union Street Farmers Market in downtown Gainesville.

She uses the commercial kitchen run by Blue Oven Kitchens, a local, nonprofit kitchen incubator, to create spice mixes she collects in shiny bags stamped with her "Saras" logo and sells each week at the farmers market for $3.50 a bag. She makes seasonings for meats and vegetables, soups and salads and bottles of sweet-and-tangy dipping sauce.

Rao also creates such concoctions as her spiced-up soup to show people how her seasonings can be used to create delicious meals. She said she hopes her food will convince them the words "vegan" and "gluten-free" aren't synonymous with "tasteless."

"These seasonings have been with my home for generations," she said. "My mom used to make it."

Rao has been selling her spices for about three years, hopping between commercial facilities where she can make her products. With the grand opening of Blue Oven Kitchens' commercial space in December, she said she found a place where she plans to cook long-term.

Blue Oven customers pay an hourly rate, which can range from $10 to $25, depending on energy usage and other factors. Rao said this is easier than investing the startup capital needed to establish her own commercial space for her small-business venture.

"I used to jump from place to place," she said. "This is so easy for me."

She said she thought about starting a restaurant but opted for something that required lower overhead costs and less pressure. Once a week, she cooks at Blue Oven Kitchens and then heads to the Wednesday evening farmers market. She was the nonprofit's first commercial customer.

Gainesville needs a facility like this because there are many entrepreneurs and would-be small-business owners who would like to sell their wares at a farmers market but need a place to make their stuff, she said.

As Rao poured a blended mix of chickpeas, onion and ginger into the orange-red base of her soup, Blue Oven Kitchens President Val Leitner donned a white apron and black-cloth hat as she whipped up a batch of the nonprofit's garden caviar. The organization sells this pesto-like spread as a way to bring in money and get its name out there.

Blue Oven Kitchens was established in 2010 with the goal of opening a commercial kitchen that local food entrepreneurs could use to launch their startup businesses, Leitner said. Setting up an inspected kitchen is difficult and pricey, she said, especially for people just starting out who are unsure if their idea will succeed.

"It's one of those things that you don't exactly know how it's going to work out until you do it," Leitner said of starting a food business. "You have to have grit as an entrepreneur."

Creating products at Blue Oven Kitchens' facility, with its array of cooking appliances, allows people to get their business running with fewer risks because they can always just quit renting the space if they decide to end their venture, she said. They also don't have to worry about maintenance or utility costs. Just having an oven hood costs the nonprofit $1,100 a year.

Interested entrepreneurs can focus on growing their business while Blue Oven Kitchens manages the facility. Many food-industry beginners in the area are often low-income or disadvantaged and don't have the capital or experience to launch their business without support from places like this, Leitner said.

Blue Oven Kitchens has two commercial customers, including Rao, and several people are interested in using the facility, Leitner said, ranging from someone who wants to make hot sauces to a beekeeper who needs a place to bottle honey.

Leitner cited a strong entrepreneurial spirit and interest in local food in North Central Florida that she hopes will foster the growth of Blue Oven Kitchens' operation.

"This is the only kitchen incubator that's around up here," she said.

Apart from renting the kitchen space to people like Rao, the nonprofit supports its operation by hosting cooking classes. Rao has taught an Indian cuisine class, while the organization has a "Chocolate and Bubbles" event on Valentine's Day where couples can learn to make desserts.

Some entrepreneurs focus on offering cooking classes rather than making specific products, and Blue Oven Kitchens provides a space where they can conduct those demonstrations, said Stefanie Samara Hamblen, a founding board member and publisher of the Hogtown HomeGrown newsletter.

The nonprofit's facility gives entrepreneurs, whether they teach cooking courses or make their own chocolates, a state-inspected, quality kitchen to do their work, she said. The people who rent the space also must pass state inspection and certification requirements, but they can use the kitchen without worrying about its operating costs.

"It's a lot of money to start up a commercial kitchen from scratch," Hamblen said.

Hamblen said she hopes the upcoming cooking classes hosted at the nonprofit's kitchen will draw new people to its operation who will take advantage of the rentable space.

"We're real excited right now," Hamblen said. "This'll mean constant use of the kitchen and new people coming into the kitchen who might not have seen it before or even heard of it."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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