Midtown-based Central Kitchen to expand retail offerings, flavor profiles

Business incubator Central Kitchen is adding new “ghost kitchens” and retail options to its Carnegie Ave. Food Hub, expanding the menu of services it offers to up-and-coming food entrepreneurs.
Though the new retail tenant storefronts will be oriented and decorated differently, The Cleveland Bagel Company’s 800-square-foot storefront at Central Kitchen offers an idea of the food service spaces to come. (Photo by Collin Cunningham)

New businesses will open this fall at Central Kitchen (CK), a commercial kitchen and food business incubator in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood. CK offers a range of services to food businesses under two divisions: its nonprofit incubator at 2800 Euclid Ave., which supports emerging culinary entrepreneurs, and the for-profit Food Hub, a 137,000-square-foot building on Carnegie that houses retail spaces, commercial kitchens for rent, and storage and packing areas. Two new “ghost kitchens,” or commercial kitchens used for food prep and delivery, and three new retail-plus-kitchen spaces will soon bring additional takeout and food delivery options to the area. 

The new options include three to-go retail-plus-kitchen spaces designed in the vein of current tenant The Cleveland Bagel Company and two “kitchen pods” designed to work as prep spaces for food trucks and other food sellers that lack their own full kitchens. The trio of retail spaces will be filled by Panamanian catering service Vegan Vybez, upscale sandwich shop Cleveland Sandwich Company, and craft pizzeria Mulberry’s Pizza. Existing currently as standalone businesses, each will undergo some change or expansion upon joining the Food Hub in the first half of November. 

The Food Hub has stood at 7501 Carnegie Avenue since Central Kitchen, which Diamond co-founded in 2013, purchased the space in 2018 and constructed a building to serve as the for-profit arm of the organization. (Photo by Collin Cunningham)

Beyond storefronts

While the retail spaces will have walk-up counter space for in-person ordering, the new kitchen pods are intended more for businesses that are in the process of scaling up. Starting out, CK’s first pair of kitchen pods will allow Mulberry’s (which will also have a retail space) and a Japanese hibachi food truck called Samurai Dynasty, another new addition, to streamline their preparation areas.

The Food Hub also offers co-packing – help with packaging or bottling – and cold or dry storage services for products. Altogether, the new retail businesses will join 20 other Cleveland-based food producers that operate out of the site in some capacity.

“After about 18 months we noticed something would happen with the kitchen members,” Eric Diamond, CEO and co-founder of CK, explained. “They would either go out of business … move into a bigger, dedicated space or go the route of co-manufacturing, [paying] somebody to make the product for them.”

Building out a solo space could cost $250,000, said Diamond, and co-packers typically want minimum orders of 5,000 cases, numbers that are prohibitively high for many small food companies. In contrast, the Food Hub at CK starts co-packing arrangements at 100 cases. 

“Central Kitchen supports businesses of all sizes and backgrounds, including a few [that] have grown into their own brick-and-mortar storefronts,” said Ashley Shaw, executive director of Midtown Cleveland Inc., the area’s nonprofit community development organization. ““The expansion of the Food Hub embodies the innovation and creativity that exists here.”

According to Diamond, Central Kitchen is the third-largest food development service of its kind in the United States behind similar concepts in Seattle and Chicago. “We look at food production as a really big driver of the economy in Northeast Ohio,” he said.

Bradley served her chicken-spiced jackfruit at the Taste of Black Cleveland event at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Aug. 18. (Photo by Collin Cunningham)

Ghost kitchens, real food

Coming in at roughly 800 square feet (and costing about $1,600 each month, per Central Kitchen’s square-footage-based pricing scheme), the retail locations will consist of kitchens and cash registers but will lack typical guest seating.

Vegan Vybez owner Charene Bradley will rely on online delivery services to sell what she calls “veganized” Panamanian food. “[I’m] going to be behind the scenes… and just running off DoorDash,” she said, explaining the ghost kitchen concept. 

Having a dedicated kitchen will be a significant change from the food preparation space at Captiv8, where Bradley currently runs Vegan Vybez as a catering business out of a shared kitchen with another chef. 

Bradley’s nephew and daughter will remain onboard to help prepare dishes like sancocho, a Caribbean soup in which Bradley substitutes braised jackfruit for chicken, but she will also hire additional help. 

While guests will not be able to sit and dine, those who come in to retrieve food will be treated to signs of Bradley’s Panamanian heritage. The intricate lines and soft patterns indigenous to Mola art, crafted by women of the Kona tribe, will adorn the walls, she said.

“The idea is to bring the true essence of Panama… the beautiful tropical weather and the Mola art,” Bradley said. “As you know, the winters [in Cleveland] can be harsh and cold, and I just want people to step inside and feel like they’re being transported to a different country.”

The tenants arriving in November will occupy a trio of new storefronts that Diamond said have been hollowed out of the metal fabricated building on Carnegie. “They’re real nice windows,” he explained of the new facade. “The spaces inside have 15-foot-high ceilings, and they’re very open, very bright, and relatively small,” he said, since they don’t require customer seating.

Selected based on their local focus, Mulberry’s and Cleveland Sandwich Company both reached out to Diamond about renting the spaces, while Vegan Vybez is a CK veteran, having also launched via the organization’s nonprofit incubator.

A formerly bare facade on the Food Hub’s Carnegie Ave. frontage is now home to three soon-to-be-occupied 800-square-foot retail storefronts. (Photo by Collin Cunningham)

Beyond the food truck

Damien James, owner of the Samurai Dynasty food truck that features regularly at the food truck parks in Lakewood and Beachwood, also used the term “ghost kitchen” to describe the kitchen pod he moved into at the start of October. Now in his second year of operating Cleveland’s “first Japanese food truck,” according to Samurai Dynasty’s Instagram page, James also said the new space was a stepping stone in his plan to eventually open a full retail storefront. 

The roving restaurant business can be restrictive. Having started in June of 2021, James said food truck seasons tend to span warmer months, leaving engines and fryers idle during the winter. Between November and March, then, James added that he will be able to use his Food Hub space to supplement the food truck with an expanded menu for DoorDash and Uber Eats customers.

A food truck’s small space and quick-service model also limit what James can do there. “I don’t do sushi in the food truck, but there’s going to be sushi coming out of the kitchen,” he said. “You’re basically going to have a full Japanese steakhouse experience. Appetizers, edamame, more of the things you’d get at a sit-down restaurant.”

James said he intends to expand further into offering delivery from his new Carnegie space via Uber Eats and DoorDash when the weather begins to change. He also wants to put prepackaged, hibachi-style meals in local grocery stores, which is where the Food Hub’s storage and co-packing amenities will come into play.

Shared-use entities like CK gives food producers more options for cold and dry storage without needing to rent an off-site warehouse. (Photo courtesy of Central Kitchen)

Looking ahead

While large-scale co-manufacturers may set minimum product runs at 5,000 cases per order, Diamond said CK’s 100-case threshold opens the door to smaller businesses like Samurai Dynasty. The hub’s 30,000 square feet of freezer space and 15,000 square feet of cooler room, meanwhile, ensure that product can be preserved at lower cold storage costs than off-site storage space.

“We are doing an expansion on our own campus, opening another 11,000 square feet of cooler and 5,000 square feet more of freezer [space],” he said.

Further expansion will come in the form of a plant-based accelerator program, planned to launch in early 2023, that will see CK invest each quarter in five to eight businesses that substitute produce for traditional forms of protein. Diamond said the initiative will make use of produce that his organization acquires through a partnership with the Oberlin Food Hub

Though 2022 is its first year of working with Oberlin farmers, CK has already made use of 40,000 pounds of agriculturally crafted food at the companies it nurtures (Diamond estimated 20 businesses existed at the hub and another 80 at the nonprofit incubator).

At his Samurai Dynasty pod, James is also planning on using this local produce, and his menu will feature seasonal salads and seafood that do not normally appear in the food truck’s window.

The success of food producers like The Vegan Doughnut Company, Cleveland Kitchen (formerly Cleveland Kraut) and Squash the Beef, which all got their start in CK’s incubator test kitchens, helped compel James to select the Food Hub for Samurai Dynasty’s first physical location. 

“I saw, from my experience and tours that I’ve taken and what I’ve observed on my own, that there’s a lot of companies that grew from Central Kitchen,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity I see with Central Kitchen. When I say stepping stone, this is pretty much just the start to get me to the next level.”

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