The Boston neighborhood of Dorchester is six square miles, enough land to contain tense problems that could fill up a city in itself. Of all of Boston’s impoverished residents, more than 20 percent live in Dorchester, 26,000 people by one recent estimate. And according to a study by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership in 2014, the neighborhood was the most embattled area of the city when it came to foreclosures, containing the four most distressed census tracts out of all 30 citywide.
Dorchester has been the locus of several government programs with an eye toward revitalization — including a defunct Empowerment Zone and a current Promise Zone. A couple years ago, one local blog — citing the neighborhood’s diversity, local music scene and bicycling culture — insisted that “Dorchester is the new Brooklyn.” And new community resources are opening, like a health and wellness center last year.
But arguably the most exciting project that’s taken shape in Dorchester of late is happening inside an old hotdog factory: A new shared kitchen facility, run by nonprofit Commonwealth Kitchen, is part startup incubator, part hyperlocal employer and part business resource center. It’s an economic engine for Dorchester that’s aimed at fostering skilled jobs and small businesses in the surrounding community.
A $15 million redevelopment of the old factory building — a collaborative effort between Commonwealth and Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation — was completed last year, with the help of a HUD grant that awarded $20 million to Dorchester overall. All told, roughly 20,000 square feet was converted into kitchen space with equipment like fryolators and a blast chiller, and it’s now home to a diverse group of 30 entrepreneurs and 140 workers. Jen Faigel, Commonwealth’s executive director, says that 70 percent of the businesses in the Dorchester kitchen today are led by women or people of color.
Shared kitchens aren’t new of course, but what differentiates Commonwealth — which has operated a second, smaller facility in Jamaica Plain since 2009 — is its expansion ambitions. “When we started, the first thing we did was look around the country for different models of shared kitchens,” says Faigel. “What we’re really focused on is businesses that can scale and grow.”
While studying similar food-centric spaces, Faigel noticed that, as occupants, caterers and pushcart vendors were often a losing proposition. For one, those businesses can have a high turnover rate as tenants. Secondly, their potential to fuel job creation is limited. So Commonwealth focused on renting to entrepreneurs making products that could be sold wholesale or at farmers’ markets — from ice cream to bagels to juices. Essentially, businesses that could expand several-fold over time.
Putting a premium on scalability gave rise to what Faigel calls the facility’s “on demand” workforce. Employees there are paid to work for both in-house companies and outside ones. They might be roasting bananas for Commonwealth’s ice cream company on Monday, cutting tomatoes for the salsa company on Tuesday, and doing contract work — like making apple crisp for a local apple farm — on Thursday and Friday.
For the workers — the majority of whom are hired from the immediate area in Roxbury and Dorchester — it’s an attractive entry-level job, particularly in an area that has little industry. There’s a diversity of skills training in the work, a consistent paycheck — the average wage is between $12 and $14 per hour, according to Faigel — and exposure to multiple small businesses that could potentially hire them down the road.
Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw, co-owners of Fresh Food Generation
Plus, rather than scraping together a prep crew for packing cookies two days a week, the small business owners can maximize their time in other pursuits. “We’re feeding 800 people per week, and it’s hard to scale up to that as a new business,” says Cassandria Campbell, co-owner of the Fresh Food Generation truck, who uses the on-demand workers to make jerk sauce. “Having them easily get through 30 pounds of cabbage in an hour, when it would take our team two or three because we don’t have the equipment or experience is pretty important.”
Plus, Campbell adds, “I can be happy knowing that Commonwealth Kitchen is using local hiring practices.”
Like in many cities, sharing space is more economical for startups too. Commonwealth rents space for $35 per hour, with additional fees for storage and parking. “I looked into my own space and realized that the cost was going to be astronomical,” says Alex Bourgeois of Alex’s Ugly Sauces. “To commit six figures to build out a space and sign a multi-year lease, with no idea whether the hot sauce was actually going to be successful or not wasn’t feasible.”
He was successful. Having scaled up to more than 20,000 bottles of hot sauce per year (some Whole Foods carry the product), Bourgeois “graduated” from Commonwealth’s Jamaica Plain location and is now a permanent tenant of commissary space at the Dorchester facility. (About half of the complex is available to rent by businesses outside the incubator.) And yet, Bourgeois still utilizes Commonwealth’s on-demand workers to stem some 6,000 pounds of peppers during a 10-week span each year. Bourgeois could have relocated elsewhere, but his decision to stay connected with his former home is telling of the project’s promise for Dorchester. “We don’t want to be the annoying entrepreneurs who come in and spend our days working there, making our money and driving away,” he says.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow, and is a contributing writer for the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit journalism outlet that reports on issues affecting women. He’s also a contributing writer to POLITICO magazine, Philadelphia magazine, WHYY and other publications. He reports primarily on criminal injustice, urban solution and politics from his home city of Philadelphia.