Revolving Test Kitchen
The Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK) is a vehicle to invest in the local food economy in Lawrence, MA. The initiative started out as a retail-oriented space in a newly renovated building for Northern Essex Community College where it offered a “golden ticket” for one food entrepreneur a year to build a business before renting a brick-and-mortar storefront. After three years of operating with this model, RTK is currently enlarging the space to improve retail operations and to include a shared kitchen facility that will provide space for more caterers, bakers, and food truck operators to build and scale their businesses and receive training and support.
RTK was born out of the Lawrence Partnership, a group of presidents, CEOs and executive directors of local banks, mills, businesses, schools, and community organizations, along with elected officials, that unified around a vision of a growing and thriving Lawrence. They meet regularly to share resources and to identify and implement projects of transformational change. RTK became one such project.
As the Northern Essex Community College was expanding into a new building, Sal Lupoli, a local real estate developer and founder of Sal’s Pizza, agreed to open a small restaurant for students in the building. After losing money on the restaurant for three consecutive years, Sal was interested to liquidate the build out and vacate the space. knowing that the location would be hard to re-lease to another food business—and that without an eatery in the facility there would be a large void of both convening space and affordable places to eat on the NECC campus—the College was eager to find a solution. The Lawrence Partnership and NECC jointly facilitated Sal to donate the equipment to NECC (for a tax write-off) and the College agreed to absorb the rent of the space if it was made available for a food business. The Lawrence Partnership agreed administer the project and to support the entrepreneur with mentorship and additional resources. By capitalizing on verbal agreements surrounding this opportunity, RTK was born.
After operating for three years in this donated space, RTK shut down operations in 2020 to reconfigure the retail space, and to build out a new shared kitchen facility that could serve even more food entrepreneurs.
The institutional partners that support RTK include the City of Lawrence (including the Mayor’s Office, and the Departments for Public Health, Planning, and Business and Economic Development), Northern Essex Community College (NECC), Lupoli Companies, and the Lawrence Partnership.
RTK also works with numerous tactical partners including EforAll (a local start-up accelerator), Groundwork Lawrence (creator of a stimulus program that contracts with local restaurants to create pre-packaged meals to distribute to families with food insecurity), and Mill Cities Community Investments (to provide loans to otherwise unbankable startups). They are also in the process of working with Rethink Restaurants and Commonwealth Kitchens to bring in programming to support RTK’s future members.
RTK was started with no dedicated funding sources. It began through donations of equipment from Lupoli Companies, and space from NECC (valued at $70k per year), as well as in-kind support from the Lawrence Partnership.
In the first year a total of $4,500 was spent on the program, which mostly consisted of hard costs for new signage. Food entrepreneurs were required to pay a nominal fee per month for rent which was returned to them as a forced savings/deposit if they agreed to build a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Lawrence at the end of their tenure. Rates for use of the future shared kitchen will include a $350 refundable deposit and a monthly base rent of $350, for 10 hours’ worth of designated kitchen time. Additional time and different kinds of storage will also be available for nominal fees.
Funding for the renovation came from the MassDevelopment’s Co-work space, the EEA state covid response fund, and in-kind support from Lupoli Co., which is performing the renovation for the project.
Funding to support the increased costs and operations in the new space came from a grant from the Federal Economic Development Administration, Mass Growth Capital Corporation, and ECCF with additional support from the members of the Partnership who are contributing staffing time and capacity.
The first food entrepreneur to get a “golden ticket,” Coco Rays, was able to successfully grow his business in RTK from a former food truck operation with two part-time employees to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Lawrence where he currently employs five people full-time. In the second year of operation, it became clear that the physical layout of the space presented challenges to other food entrepreneurs (it was difficult for one person to make food and run the point of sale), so the Lawrence Partnership started to raise funds and interest in reconfiguring the space. After the third year of operation, RTK planned to shut down operations so it could rearrange the retail space and build out a new shared kitchen facility in the basement level. This timing happened to coincide with the coronavirus pandemic. During construction some additional improvements were made to adapt to new requirements, and the new space is expected to open for a soft launch in spring/summer of 2021, ramping up to full operations when students return to in-person learning at NECC which is expected in the fall or winter or 2021/2022.
The newly expanded facility seeks to honor the legacy goals of the first project to support food entrepreneurs, activate the space, and add vibrancy to the NECC campus. With twice the amount of space compared to the old model, the new program will serve up to 30 entrepreneurs as members. RTK will be open 20-24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with bakers at night, catering on the weekend, and retail with point of sale during hours when in-person learning is taking place. Programming will not only support retail operations but business to business connections as well so it can become a hub for the broader food ecosystem.
RTK is currently working with industry partners to build out a programming model that will target members and a larger set of food entrepreneurs. Offerings may include workshops on obtaining a business license from the City’s Health Department, boosting their digital presence and e-commerce capabilities, food-based pitch contests with EforAll, catering, and wholesale distribution with Lawrence Partnership board member organizations.
Evidence of the success of this model can be seen in the growth of the first food entrepreneur to graduate from RTK. During its year at the Kitchen, Coco Ray’s went from two part-time workers operating out of a food truck to a brick-and-mortar business that has employed five full-time employees throughout the entire pandemic.
The next two entrepreneurs who got the “golden ticket” to use RTK did not make it into a brick-and-mortar space, which may also be viewed as a success because it gave them an opportunity to try launching a business that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. It often takes 2-3 years to break even on a new food business, so RTK offers a chance to try out a business without first depleting a life’s worth of savings.
RTK will continue to build new programs and services to support food businesses in Lawrence, offering a centralized location to build core competencies and to leverage networks. When the pandemic subsides, it is also hoped that this new space will become a destination, driving people downtown and increasing the buying power of the area.
RTK works to build a local food economy in the Immigrant City. The food industry is a natural asset with growth opportunities as it is not an export-based business, but an indigenous one that employs local people and contributes to the local economy. Supporting RTK is a way for the Lawrence Partnership to enact inclusive economic development that supports local job creation that builds on the diversity and heritage of people in the city.
Visit the Revolving Test Kitchen in person (when it reopens at 420 Common Street, Lawrence MA) or online at The Lawrence Partnership.