Togather x Mission Kitchen: Introducing Mission Kitchen
Written by Bella Jolly, Wed 20 September 2023
We love linking up with like-minded businesses in the events and hospitality industry - and today we’re doing just that with a brand new partnership with Mission Kitchen. Mission Kitchen is an incubator kitchen space for new and existing businesses, with state of the art equipment, flexible memberships & mentorship programs. Togather supplier members get an exclusive 10% discount on their first 3 months.
We sat down with Charlie Gent, the founder of Mission Kitchen, to get an in-depth insight into how and why he started the business, how it differs from other incubator spaces, and what he’s learnt about how small businesses can succeed.
Hey Charlie! Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got started?
I'm Charlie, one of the founders of Mission Kitchen. My background is in working with various food brands and businesses over the past few years. Before Mission Kitchen, I was involved in a company that specialized in repurposing old vacant buildings and land into workspaces for local businesses. These spaces incorporated studios, co-working areas, retail units, and often had a food and drink element, like a street food destination.
Given my background in creating shared workspaces and supporting startups, I assumed there would be a dedicated place in London for aspiring food entrepreneurs, similar to co-working spaces in other industries. To my surprise, I couldn't find one. This seemed odd, considering how many people I knew personally who had ideas for food businesses. So, I began researching and discovered that while such solutions were scarce in the UK, they existed successfully in the United States.
Tell us what makes Mission Kitchen different?
I mean, one thing that distinguishes us is our focus on the types of businesses we cater to. We're not a dark kitchen, so there's no takeaway food delivery or virtual brands operating from our space. Instead, we concentrate on catering to street food traders and those developing and launching food products. This results in a unique membership community and space.
One key feature that sets us apart is the nature of our space. We emphasize shared space, providing co-working areas where members can work on various aspects of their business outside of the kitchen. We also offer shared kitchen spaces with flexible access, making it more affordable for people to use high-quality production equipment. This flexibility is often lacking when renting from traditional commercial kitchen rental companies or dark kitchens.
There's a misconception that it's acceptable for those in the food industry to work in less-than-ideal environments, like basements or freezing warehouses. Just as in co-working spaces, studios, and offices in other industries, we believe the working environment should be comfortable and inspiring. Our kitchen in London, for example, has floor-to-ceiling windows, providing ample natural light. We put significant thought into creating a beautiful, inspiring, and comfortable workspace.
Beyond the physical space and business support, our sense of community is what sets us apart. With over 100 food businesses within our community and an open-plan shared space, our members spend a lot of time working alongside one another. We actively foster this sense of community through networking events, monthly family meals, and team members dedicated to connecting and encouraging collaboration among our members.
This sense of community is especially appealing in an industry that can often feel isolated, particularly for those in the early stages of their food businesses. The opportunity to connect, share knowledge, seek advice, and build relationships with a diverse group of 100 other food entrepreneurs is a compelling aspect of our mission.
Finally, we offer a comprehensive range of business support. We view ourselves not just as a kitchen rental provider but as an incubator for food businesses. When members join Mission Kitchen, they gain access not only to the kitchen and co-working space but also to our community and a business support program. This includes a mentorship program, regular training workshops, one-on-one advisory support from experts, and events like Meet the Buyer, which opens doors to pop-up trading opportunities.
In essence, joining us means more than getting kitchen space; it's signing up to be part of an incubator where you'll receive extensive support to help grow your food business.
Can you expand a little bit about the importance of networks and community in hospitality?
In the food industry, there's a social and networked aspect that's quite apparent. However, when you're in the early stages, the reality can be quite different. It can be isolating, both physically and mentally. The food industry is complex, and many people enter it out of a love for food, culinary skills, or an idea for a product or food brand they're passionate about. But often, they lack the knowledge of how the industry works, the intricacies of running a successful food business, and the nuances of compliance with regulations. Navigating all of this on your own can be daunting.
So, when people visit our kitchen space and consider joining us, what really stands out to them is the sense of community. It's about being around like-minded individuals who share similar challenges and goals. This sense of belonging and the opportunity to connect with others is often the defining factor that motivates them to become part of our community.
What are some of the great success stories at Mission kitchen?
One of our members who initially joined us during the pandemic when we were exploring ways to support people interested in starting food businesses. We ran an online course targeting aspiring entrepreneurs, providing guidance on transitioning from newcomers to startup founders. One participant, Eva, had the idea for a range of condiments inspired by the American South. She noticed a gap in the UK market for these products. As part of the course's final day, there was a pitching event, and Eva's proposal won her free space at Mission Kitchen for the first few months. She accepted the offer and began developing her business from our kitchen.
Through our mentorship program, Eva was paired with Tom Barton, one of the founders of Honest Burger. He became her mentor and was impressed by her products. He introduced her product as a special burger item across Honest Burger's stores, which led to a significant increase in demand. Eva went from producing a handful of jars a day to approximately 1,500 kilograms of product. This growth prompted her to explore manufacturing and supply chain expansion, scaling up her business significantly. She went on to win multiple Great Taste Awards and recently announced that her products are now available at Whole Foods stores across the UK. All of this started with just an idea 2.5 years ago.
These are the kinds of stories we love to see—entrepreneurs coming to us with ideas or early-stage businesses and utilizing the support we offer to accelerate their growth rapidly. We have many more exciting stories like these, and it's truly rewarding to witness the journey of our members.
What are some of the traits that you see with successful businesses?
One crucial aspect, especially in the early growth stages of a business, is maintaining a high degree of focus. It can be very tempting to try to cater to a broad audience and offer a wide range of products or services based on various requests and opportunities. This approach may seem exciting, particularly if you have a passion for food and enjoy experimenting with new products. However, businesses that tend to succeed and experience rapid growth are those that understand the importance of specialization.
Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, it's advisable to concentrate on doing one thing exceptionally well. Establishing a niche where you become known as the best in London for a particular cuisine or product can be extremely valuable. This approach allows you to build a loyal fan base and a strong following. There's a concept called "1000 True Fans" that emphasizes the value of having a smaller group of people who are deeply passionate about your offerings, support your endeavors, and advocate for your brand. It's far more valuable than having a much larger but less engaged audience.
In the early stages, it's crucial to understand what you can do better than anyone else, maintain a clear identity, and focus on offering a small range of high-quality products or services. This laser-focused approach can set you apart and lay a strong foundation for future growth.
Another key factor, especially in the early days, is persistence. It's essential to have the stamina and determination not to accept rejection easily. You'll often find yourself knocking on doors, seeking opportunities, and navigating challenges. People who exhibit persistence, who don't take "no" for an answer, tend to be the ones who make significant progress. It's important to approach this with a human touch, charm, and even a bit of humor, as it can make a substantial difference in building relationships and opening doors to opportunities.
What advice would you give to someone that’s looking to diversify their income streams by moving to retail?
As for advice, although it’s quite a different world and business model, there are some essential principles. First and foremost, when starting, it's crucial to thoroughly understand costing and pricing. Delve into the less glamorous but vital details of the numbers at every stage. We've seen cases where people have fantastic products, like outstanding condiments or dressings, but when it comes to areas outside their expertise, such as scaling or understanding the retail landscape, they struggle. Ultimately, if you're aiming to build a significant business that may end up on retailers' shelves, you need to understand what buyers and retailers are seeking.
This can be a somewhat mysterious realm, and it's not always obvious to outsiders what makes a product sell in the retail space. So, conducting in-depth research is key. It's easy for people to create a delicious product or craft an appealing brand, but before diving in, it's crucial to put in the groundwork of researching how the retail world operates, understanding the underlying economics, and how that affects your pricing and costing strategies.
For most entrepreneurs, the long-term goal may involve getting their products into retail, so gaining insights into what retailers are looking for is vital. We've recently started hosting events at Mission Kitchen, like our "Meet the Buyer" events, where we bring in buyers from independent retailers. Our members have the opportunity to showcase their products, pitch them, and potentially secure listings in these retailers. Some are at the right stage to get their products on the shelves, while others are seeking valuable feedback and understanding about what buyers are looking for.
So, if you're moving in the direction of productizing your food business, investing time in understanding the dynamics of the retail world is a wise step to take.
When’s the right time to move out of the home and into a bigger, more professional space?
Expanding your premises, such as moving into a place like Mission Kitchen, isn't a one-size-fits-all decision. It varies for each business. Typically, business owners have an intuitive sense of when they've reached their current limits. This realization often comes early on when a business is starting to gain some traction. At that point, it becomes clear that the current setup, whether it's a home kitchen or a part-time arrangement, is no longer sufficient.
Our perspective is that the transition to your first commercial kitchen should happen as soon as possible. Stepping into an environment with access to professional equipment and the necessary facilities can significantly accelerate your growth. Efficiency improves, production volumes increase, and product quality rises. So, making this first step should be a priority, and we aim to make it accessible, affordable, and flexible to facilitate this transition.
Moving beyond that initial step, scaling up further into private kitchens or your own unit depends on the specifics of your business. It's about responding to those moments when you realize you can't keep up with demand, and you need more space to grow. So, there isn't a fixed timeline for when to make such a move—it's about recognizing your business's unique needs and growth potential.
A huge thanks goes to Charlie for taking the time to chat. We know our suppliers will find this insight so valuable and we’re looking forward to continuing to build our partnership with Mission Kitchen!