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Her Kitchen Is Your Kitchen

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Kitchen Chicago

4664 N. Manor

773-463-0863

In the focus-group speak of the grocery store aisle, there's nothing wrong with the word homemade. Real estate agents perfume houses for sale with freshly baked cookies for a reason, after all. But a product actually made in a home kitchen is something else: illegal.

That's what Alexis Frankfort discovered about a year ago. She'd left her job as a portfolio analyst at Merrill Lynch for frosting. "I loved buttercream, so I went to pastry school," she says. "Buttercream just keeps me going." After training at the City Colleges of Chicago's French Pastry School, she landed at Bittersweet for a year ("great buttercream," she notes). It was only after she started craving her own business that she realized "you couldn't do it out of your house." She examined her options and found few, so she started researching shared-use commercial kitchens, learning that even nationally the only ones out there were job-training centers run by nonprofits. To gauge interest in the idea locally she posted a survey on bakerynet.com. Then, with the names of 30 potential clients in hand, she walked into her bank.

What she and her partner and boyfriend, Jeff Leverenz, wound up creating--Kitchen Chicago, a shared-use kitchen with a storefront in Ravenswood Manor--is a novel solution to a common problem. For many small businesses the Internet has radically simplified the start-up process: you knit a sweater, you create a Web site, someone buys your sweater, and everybody's happy. There's no wall of debt--from a room of industrial knitting machines, say--that threatens to collapse and crush you. But since bakers and cooks are required by the government to operate in a commercially certified kitchen, they can't start small: they need a separate workspace, which means large start-up costs. And in the restaurant business there's little tradition of sharing costs and space.

It was a niche that, once filled, got noticed. Former pastry chefs at Blackbird and North Pond rent time at Kitchen Chicago, as does restaurateur Jerry Kleiner of Marche, Gioco, and Opera in preparation for his new nuevo Latino place on Fulton Street. There's also a mother-son team called the Windy City Candy Company and Papa Lena, a pair of former motivational speakers who are marketing an old family recipe for chips made from red bell peppers. All told, Kitchen Chicago has a few dozen clients sharing the 1,200 square feet of its fully equipped kitchen, which is available 24 hours a day at rates between $15 and $22 per hour.

As the Papa Lena team washes a sinkful of peppers in the back, Frankfort sits in the front and says she's pleased by how amicable the space sharing has stayed: "I was so hoping it wouldn't be, 'Hey, you touched my stuff.'" At a recent tenant meeting, she says, her two toffee producers, competitors outside the store, "ended up giving each other tips on how not to get the butter to break."

The clients all regularly contribute items for sale in the storefront, which is spacious and homey-looking, with long striped drapes marking off the kitchen. On Sundays the storefront hosts a crepe brunch prepared by Melissa Yen and Sara Voden of Vella Cafe. There are hand-sewn patchwork aprons on offer, and a retro white stove and butter churns for decoration; there's also Wi-Fi. Among the items available on a recent afternoon were a lemon ricotta tart and a wild berry charlotte from Bleeding Heart Bakery (slogan "Pastry for Peace"), run by chef Michelle Garcia, who says that without Kitchen Chicago "it would've taken me much, much longer to open."

Garcia had "basically taken the tour of Chicago natural food stores," she said recently at Kitchen Chicago, midway through a wedding order for 460 lollipops imprinted with the initials of the bride and groom. After sojourns baking in Amsterdam and San Francisco she came back to her native Chicago last year with the intention of opening an all-organic, locally sourced bakery complete with solar-powered ovens. While making wedding cakes for Vosges Chocolates, she spent nine months "testing recipes and talking everyone's ear off about how great it's going to be." She's just signed a lease on a storefront in Ukrainian Village (she's currently selling her stuff at the Lincoln Park and Wicker Park farmers' markets). But for now she plans to continue cooking out of Kitchen Chicago. "I want to show you can work together with people and still have your own business," she says.

Meanwhile, another client, Michael Farrell, the fromagier at Spiaggia, has returned from the Green City Market, towing his portable brick pizza oven behind his truck. He apologizes for having left something in the kitchen. Frankfort dismisses it: "If it wasn't sitting on the grease trap I would've eaten it," she says. She looks into the back. "Are the peppers in your way?" she asks.

Frankfort has scaled back her own baking to the occasional wedding cake. But her ambition for the business is growing: there are evening events slated for the neighborhood, which has embraced the cafe. (A calendar of events is available at kitchenchicago.com.) "We've got some people to try something new every day," she says. She's also planning events to highlight individual tenants. And she's shopping for a Kitchen Chicago ice cream bike to ride around nearby Horner Park, selling her clients' wares.

But this afternoon she's tired: at the moment she runs the storefront alone during the week, joined by Leverenz on weekends. It is thanks to him that she's there any morning, she says: "Jeff wakes me up with ice cream to get me here. He feeds me a sweet to get me out of bed."

Closing

Tournesol, at 4343 N. Lincoln, is slated to close August 6 and reopen at the end of the month as a wine bar serving a small-plate menu.

Closed

She She, 4539 N. Lincoln; Toucan, 4603 N. Lincoln.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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