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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WSMV) — When you want to turn your food hobby into a food business, hundreds of entrepreneurs have sought the help of seasoned chef Laura Wilson.
The 8-time Executive Chef has helped launch more than 300 food businesses in Nashville since starting Citizen Kitchens in 2015.
“So many of these are just crazy ideas that someone just took a leap to do,” Wilson said. “And I really respect that gumption.”
Wilson is the managing partner for Citizen Kitchens, which has locations in West Nashville on Charlotte Pike and East Nashville in the basement of Hunter’s Station in Five Points. It’s a commissary kitchen with rentable commercial kitchen space offering an affordable way for people to start their food venture without taking the risk of securing their own kitchen space.
Citizen Kitchen launched in 2015 after Wilson, who was running the Grow Local Kitchen at Nashville Farmers Market, realized people wanted to rent the kitchen for their food production. The Grow Local Kitchen was intended to be a small demonstration kitchen that would serve as a place for people to learn about preparing food.
“There just wasn’t any [kitchen space] to rent in Nashville,” Wilson said.
With the help of other food entrepreneurs, Citizen Kitchen West was opened in 2015 in the Love Building across from Richland Park Market. They started with five clients. Since then, Citizen Kitchens has grown to two locations and 175 current food companies preparing items in their commercial kitchen. More than 300 companies have used the rentable space since 2015.
The kitchens currently serve as a landing spot for 35 food trucks in Nashville, which the city requires. It’s also home to about six caterers. In addition, the kitchens are the site of baking, preparing, and assembling food products for sale in Citizen Market, Wilson’s retail food market within Hunter’s Station, and other local businesses around Nashville.
A life full of food
Laura Wilson did not set out to be a chef. She attended college in the late 1980s in Colorado and worked for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRC). Wilson was politically active in environmental issues and had worked for one year on the Clean Air Act of 1990. That same year, at the age of 20, she came home to Chattanooga to take a break.
“I walked into a restaurant, and I saw all the people working there, standing up, talking to people,” Wilson recalled. “They were smiling. They weren’t sitting in a library looking at the microfiche. And I loved the feeling, and I loved the energy of it, and I applied, and so they hired me.”
Wilson started making sandwiches at the shop during the day. The restaurant transitioned to a more upscale facility at night, and soon after, Wilson was offered a more significant role.
“I was in college at the time for environmental studies and biology degrees, and I was offered a sous chef position there, so I dropped out [of college],” Wilson said. “I never looked back.”
Wilson says the high energy of line cooking and the ability to be active on her feet kept her in the food business for many years.
By 1993, at the age of 23, Wilson became an Executive Chef. Since then, she has served as Executive to eight restaurants; two in Chattanooga, two in New Orleans, and four restaurants in Nashville.
“I didn’t have a 5-year plan or goals. I wanted to be an executive chef, and I just loved the work,” Wilson said.
She admits to being drawn to food.
“Food is connection. When you offer someone food, you tell them who you are, where you’re from, what your mom did,” Wilson said. “It’s part of yourself, and you’re sharing yourself with people.”
Who’s in the kitchen
When Wilson first became an Executive Chef in 1993, women rarely filled restaurant kitchens.
“We were relegated in a lot of ways to doing pastries,” Wilson said. “One of the things I love about working in Citizen Kitchens now is that I can see how that culture really has shifted. There are easily 50% women in our kitchen, and that’s really great to see.”
Wilson’s ability to shepherd food entrepreneurs as they evolve from hobby cook to legitimate business is an important one. She helps them navigate state and local inspections and food product labeling, among other requirements.
“We want to set people up for that success,” Wilson said. “We want people to leave! That’s the best reason to lose a client is to success.”
The ability to rent commercial kitchen space helps a new food business save money. Renting the tables and prep stations within the kitchen only costs a few hundred dollars. As Wilson puts it, it “cushions the fail” for businesses that don’t survive.
“If it doesn’t work, you’re not going to lose your house,” says Wilson. “I feel like it gives people permission to be a bit more daring and to take some more chances because the consequences of failure just aren’t as big.”
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