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Saint Louis University kitchen gives entrepreneurs recipe for success

Saint Louis University’s Shared Use Kitchen is helping food entrepreneurs take a crack at starting their own businesses.

Housed in the basement of the Salus Center, the 6,000 square foot kitchen is used by culinary students and staffers who make breakfast and lunch for six area schools. The university in 2011 opened the kitchen to people looking to start a food-based business.

Steve Jenkins, an assistant professor and director of the food innovation and entrepreneurship program, said at first the goal was to help local farmers create products and extend their selling season, but it soon expanded to other food entrepreneurs. He said getting into a commercial kitchen can be pricey, while building one will run at least $250,000.

"That’s a real barrier for someone starting a business, particularly if it’s a new idea that they want to explore," Jenkins said. "So we can let them try it, develop a product and see if there really is a demand for it."

The $10 an hour rental fee allows entrepreneurs access to all of the kitchen’s equipment, as well as to Jenkins' expertise in both marketing and food safety. The aim is for the program to break even, while helping local businesses grow. Currently, about a dozen entrepreneurs are involved in the Shared Use Kitchen.

Jessie-Pearle’sPoundcakes Etc.

Jessie-PearleHairston likes making what she calls "retro" desserts, like her signature pound cake, sweet potato pie or a peach pie she says harkens back to slavery days.

"People are losing touch with old school desserts," she said. "I’m reviving their taste buds."

Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Jessie-Pearle Hairston's pecan tassies. She said "they're so good they'll make a bulldog break his chain."

On this particular day, Hairston is making pecan tassies, which resemble tiny pecan pies. She sold her first pound cake at age 13 but never had the opportunity for formal culinary training. Now 68, she said she’s excited to have her own business. Hairston in July began working in the Shared Use Kitchen, which is just a few miles from her home.

"I’m grateful that I finally found something that I can do that gets me a few extra dollars," she said. “I’m on a fixed income, and I can’t borrow the money to start up a business, so this is a perfect."

An enthusiastic peddler of desserts, Hairston said her daughter calls her the CEO of sugar and butter.

Rebel Roots

Amelia Karges said her family has made caramel apples "forever." She and her mother talked about starting a business, but the timing was never quite right. Then, while getting her master’s in nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, Karges took an entrepreneurship class.

Credit (Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio)
Amelia Karges started her caramel apple business Rebel Roots two years ago while in a St. Louis University entrepreneurship class.

"I had to write a business plan from start to finish and put something into action. So I just took the caramel apple idea and ran with it." she said.

That was two years ago. Now she sells her apples and other products at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market and individual parties. Karges said things have gone well since the entrepreneurship class kicked things off and with the help of the Shared Use Kitchen.

"I probably would not have been able to do it without this space," she said.

Fred and Ricky’s

Kathleen Waidmann’s husband, Ricky, was put on a plant-based diet after being diagnosed with heart disease.

"He found it was difficult to find good, nutritious, and yet tasty plant-based food, so I started cooking for him," Waidmann said.

Credit (courtesy Fred and Ricky's)
Kathleen (aka Fred) and Ricky Waidmann. Their soon-to-open retail store, Fred and Ricky's, will offer to-go, plant based food with 40 items on the menu.

Soon the couple decided there was a need for to-go meals made solely from plants, and Fred and Ricky’s was born. (Waidmann said her husband often calls her Fred.) She began testing recipes with names such as “plantasagna” and “plantaloni” in the Shared Use Kitchen about 18 months ago.

"The largest cost when trying to see if you can make a go of a food business is the equipment, and this kitchen has everything," she said.

Fred and Ricky’s will open its own processing kitchen this month near Westport Plaza in west St. Louis County, and a retail store will soon follow. Waidmann said they’ll still rely on the expertise of Jenkins and others in the Shared Use Kitchen, as well as the student interns they plan to hire from the university’s culinary and dietetics program. 

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.