LEAP Kitchen Seeks Food Business Start-ups

Tucked behind a Freedom First Credit Union branch in the West End neighborhood is Roanoke’s most expansive shared commercial kitchen, a space with ovens, mixers, refrigerators – and a spirit of entrepreneurship and community.

The LEAP Kitchen, licensed by Virginia departments of health and agriculture, is home to 30 food producers, caterers, and food trucks, who became members to gain access to the kitchen, connections to LEAP’s markets, and support for their small businesses. The Kitchen is also available to occasional-use customers, who might prepare food for an annual event or teach a nutrition class.

Currently, the LEAP Kitchen serves coffee roasters (Asher’s Coffee Beans), cookie bakers (By the Dozen), nonprofits (House of Bread), meal prep businesses (Meal Prep by Tish), caterers (Hamm’s Fine Foods, Southern Sisters Desserts), and more (Smoke in Chimneys, Sycamore Snacks). Several successful Roanoke food businesses got their start in the LEAP Kitchen, including Queen’s Vegan Cafe food truck, RND Coffee, and Kind Baking Co.

With recent improvements to the Kitchen and the hiring of LEAP Kitchen Manager, long-time chef Jeff Bland, the LEAP Kitchen is actively seeking new members – producers of value-added products such as jams, salsas, or sauces; start-up food businesses; and food trucks or food carts that need an inspected kitchen for preparation and storage.

The LEAP Kitchen is distinctive in its mission to support start-up food businesses as a way to strengthen the local economy, build food-making skills, and contribute to resilient food systems.

“To nurture our food community, LEAP strives to lift up and connect various parts of our local food systems,” says LEAP Executive Director Maureen McNamara Best. “The LEAP Kitchen provides the space, support, and technical assistance to help food-based businesses thrive in Roanoke.”

The LEAP Kitchen is one of many programs offered by Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP), a nonprofit centered in Roanoke that supports farmers and fresh, local food for all. LEAP also runs two farmers markets, a mobile market, and a farm share.

Many members cook in the LEAP Kitchen then sell their products wholesale to LEAP for inclusion in its Farm Share and at LEAP’s farmers markets: Grandin Village Farmers Market, held Saturday mornings in the parking lot behind the Roanoke Co+op, and West End Farmers Market, held Tuesday afternoons at 1027 Patterson Ave.

“Being a member of the LEAP family creates such an easy entry point for food businesses just starting up,” says Matt Rose, owner of Spice Titan, a maker of spice blends that became a Kitchen member in 2020 and started selling at Grandin Village Farmers Market in 2021. “Having a VDACS inspected commercial kitchen to work out of and a thriving farmers market to showcase my products are two major pieces to the puzzle. I definitely would not be where I am today without these invaluable assets.”

The LEAP Kitchen opened in 2016, after infrastructure grants were awarded from a variety of funders, including the Roanoke Women’s Foundation. It has steadily grown since then, adding more services, such as specific memberships for food trucks, increased mentoring and small business support, and greater access to more customers. In 2023, Bland began offering monthly ServSafe classes and exams – a service that increases skills and employability to food professionals across the region.

Bland has been involved in the food industry for over 40 years. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University, he has worked in commercial kitchens from Providence to Orlando to Roanoke, where he served 13 years as a corporate chef for a national food distributor. He has helped many people open restaurants and knows the challenges they face.

“Starting your own food business from scratch can be a daunting task and many people do not know where to begin,” explains Bland. “The LEAP Kitchen offers the physical space to start your business and we assist with getting you through the complex process of first-time food business ownership.”

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