Optimism and Innovation in the Lawrence Food Scene
“We see opportunity where others may see a challenge,” says Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, about the Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK) — a culinary hub in the midst of restructuring its business approach.
Since its founding in 2016, the RTK has helped food entrepreneurs gain access to the resources they need to build their own business model without having to worry about startup costs. When the program was launched, the RTK hosted only one tenant at a time. Applicants competed for a single, one-year spot in the facility, located at 420 Common St. in Lawrence.
“The annual turnover meant that businesses, just as they were getting traction and building a market, had to kind of be uprooted and leave for somewhere else,” Mitchell says.
The leadership of the RTK program saw an economic opportunity to transform their original business model into the concept of a shared commercial kitchen, which would enable multiple businesses to grow by relying on one another, without all of the expenses that come with the commercial kitchen concept.
“It’s kind of like a gym membership,” Mitchell says. “If you wanted to have a gym at your house, even if you only wanted to work out three times a week, you’d have to drop 50 grand to get all that equipment. But a gym membership works in everybody’s benefit, where you pay $15 a month and then you share that equipment with hundreds of other people.”
For the past 18 months, RTK has been raising money to reinvest in the facility, which has been under reconstruction for six months, with much of the financial support coming from the Lupoli Family Foundation.
The concept of a shared commercial kitchen wouldn’t have been possible without local support, including donations from the commonwealth of Massachusetts, contributions from MassDevelopment for a capital build-out, construction by Lupoli Companies, a partnership with Foundation Kitchen for day-to-day management expertise, and the lending of space by Northern Essex Community College, as well as the help of many more community organizations.
With twice as much square footage, the RTK will be able to host up to 30 tenants at once and offer more job creation opportunities for multiple food entrepreneurs. In order for each unique tenant to use the kitchen at the time they desire, the facility will be open 20 hours a day.
The first floor is being transformed with new equipment, including another wash station, a baking station, a cold prep station and a dry storage area. The second floor will have kiosks, similar to the layout of a food court, according to Sal Lupoli, the founder and CEO of Lupoli Companies. A variety of food businesses will be scattered throughout the facility.
The shared commercial space enables each new tenant to network within the facility. Whether that means one entrepreneur steps up to provide services to another’s customer when they’re not on the premises, or a catering company works to add another tenant’s winning pastelitos to its menu, there will be endless collaborative opportunities among the tenants to share their skills and lend their support.
“You’re not just, at that rate, having a capital investment that services the business. It’s actually a local food economy that you’re bolstering, and you’re building a supply chain,” Mitchell says. The RTK is also hoping to involve the Lupoli Family Culinary Arts Institute in the updated facility, which adjoins the Lawrence campus of Northern Essex Community College.
With shutdowns in states all over the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has done significant damage to the restaurant industry, and Lupoli is grateful that the Lupoli Family Foundation can provide the financial assistance, time and effort to help startup entrepreneurs reach their aspirations during a global crisis.
“It’s a challenging moment in the pandemic for sure,” Mitchell says, “but we’re trying to see all the opportunity that comes out of it.”
The RTK is expecting to reopen in March, with potential startup entrepreneurs already seeking a spot in the facility. One applicant currently works exclusively through Facebook Marketplace. Although this constrains her in terms of space and finances, she has used the platform to develop a loyal customer base. Other potential new tenants include a gelato maker and a woman who runs a healthy meal prep service out of her home.
Lupoli believes that the growth of each aspiring entrepreneur will contribute to economic development and work opportunities in Lawrence, which will beautify the city.
“As the tide rises, all boats rise,” he says. “We’re fixing up the place — all these entrepreneurs, they’re all going to get stronger, and as they get stronger, there’ll be more people to go out in the community and open retail stores; maybe abandoned storefronts, because this was always the vision.”