Manning Canning is opening a commercial kitchen

I write a lot on these pages about my love of preserving, gardening and local food in general. But at the moment, I have something else on my mind. So will you humour me for a moment?

You see, Manning Canning has been in business for about 3 years now – just over a year of that has been full time. I love preserving so much that I chose to quit my full time marketing job and make this my career or more accurately - my life.

I have learned a lot in these 3 years. And that is what I want to talk about today. I have learned that the food community in Ontario is vibrant and made up of a group of very passionate people. I have stood next to other vendors at farmers markets and heard their stories. I have spoken with many small food producers about the challenges of starting, running and building a food business. Many of the challenges stem from the fact that each of us are trying to build a business alone and without the support of a central group or even a unified resource centre. Want to know the steps to getting a food business started, well get digging because it is going to take you a while to uncover all of the different pieces of information you need.

Want to find a supplier to deliver you produce – well get prepared to hear that your minimum order is too small. And then there is the simple fact that each and every thing that you make needs to be made in a commercially certified kitchen. When I first started off, I found a restaurant in Scarborough that was willing to trade me kitchen hours for help with their social media strategy. It was a great score for me starting out as I could not afford to pay the rental fees of the few kitchen spaces I had been able to find. But it also meant that my access to time in the kitchen was extremely limited. I had to go in when the kitchen was closed. It also meant that you could only grow your business very slowly as you could not meet demand with limited kitchen space.

I scoured the internet looking for alternative space and stumbled across a small rentable kitchen in Leslieville. The hourly rate was affordable and it was available for more regularly than my first kitchen. But it was small and cramped and working with one other person in the kitchen was challenging, to say the least. But it did the trick and I continued to grow. Added mores store to the list of stores carrying my product and added a 2nd farmer’s market to the roster. But with the confined space in the kitchen there was little I could do to improve efficiencies or increase output.

I then discovered the Scarborough Storefront. A kitchen in the KGO that granted new food businesses kitchen space for free up to a year. I had just quit my full time job, so the timing was perfect. I was granted access every Monday from 9-2pm at no cost. And then, one of the butcher shops carrying my product one day offered the use of the basement kitchen two days a week – with 3 glorious steam kettles and I was finally able to really push forward with some growth.

But still, Manning Canning could only produce so much on 2.5 days in the kitchen. Each time I go to the kitchen, I have to bring every single ingredient with me. That means on days when we are making Pickled Carrots that I pack over 100lb of carrots from the food terminal where I buy them from the farmer, to my house and then down the 15 stairs to the basement kitchen. It also means that every small ware from the cutting boards , vegetable peelers, measuring spoons, bowls, stir sticks, funnel, towels, bleach solution and aprons has to be packed up and taken to the kitchen with me and packed up and taken back home at the end of the day.

The packing and hefting adds easily an hour onto the start of my day as well as the end of my day. No matter how much I love it, I can’t deny that it is exhausting.

Flash back to the discussions I have been having with other small and successful food entrepreneurs I have met over the past 3 years and their stories are similar. There is a lack of commercial kitchen space in the city and the kitchens they end up using have no space for them to store raw materials, supplies or tools. Making it almost impossible to grow at a pace that our customers would like.

Sure, there are options. You can get your product co-packed. But for those of us who want to maintain control over the process or can not commit financially to the minimum orders required by most co-packers it is difficult.

For the past 2 years I have been talking with the managers at farmer’s markets and other food producers about my desire to open a commercial kitchen. In between making jars of jams and pickles, I have been working on my business plan. When I am not teaching preserving classes or making deliveries I have been researching possible grants I could apply for and when I am not labeling jars I have most recently been putting the finishing touches on my kickstarter campaign.

I have decided that now is the time. That for Manning Canning to grow and for other small food producers to have the chance to build their businesses that Toronto needs a rentable kitchen space that allows food producers to just show up and create.

I am all in. I am committing financially to this dream and I hope you will too. My campaign will be live in September and I am hoping those of you that feel as passionately about small food producers and local food, will want to help support this. Stay tuned for more.

Let's keep it positive people!

All day long as I chopped carrots in the commercial kitchen so that I could turn them into delicious spciy pickles, the song that I remember from Sesame Street was playing over and over in my mind. Some days it is a positive feeling, like today. It feels good to break with what is expected or what I have always done and do something that is more of a passion than a career path.

But then there are the dark days, when I wonder what the hell I am doing. That was yesterday. While I sat at my breakfast bar trying out the pineapple jam I made the evening before I decided to catch up on some reading on my ipad while I drank my tea and ate my toast. I stumbled upon this article titled '3 Reasons Not to Start a Food Biz'. I should have shut it down right there. But as the saying goes, Curiosity Killed The Cat. It didn't quite kill me but it sure was a punch in the gut on a Monday morning.

If you don't feel like reading it, I will summarize in my own words:
- It is a horrible time to enter the artisan food market
- the market is over saturated
- margins suck on preserves
- farmers markets are expensive to participate in
- major retailers aren't interested in you
- your current job is easier

After repeatedly bashing my head on the table for several minutes after reading that article, I decided that the best course of action was to walk away from it and come back to it in a couple of hours and see if I could pull something positive out of it.

The first time I went back to it, I clicked through to another article listed at the bottom of this article which had tips for startups and pulled the positive that there is still room for people making good basic jams. I can make good basic jams. So yah - positive. But that nagging awful feeling still stuck with me.

So again today, I re-read the article and this time after a day in the kitchen, even with an aching back, sore feet and a whack of dishes still to be washed, I found a positive even more encouraging than the 'basic jam' positive from yesterday.

What was that positive you ask? Well let me tell you :). It was that this article focuses on people who want to take the road most travelled. But there are other "out of the box" routes that I don't think have been explored in the same over saturated way. This made me smile. This made me feel good about chopping carrots for 5 hours and having orange fingers.

So remember - when something comes up that takes the wind out of your sails, it is up to you to change direction or paddle for an hour or two until you come upon a different wind that will take you where you need to go.