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Commissary Kitchens: Who Uses Them and How Do they Work?

Food entrepreneurs know full well that it’s not easy to launch and grow a food business from the ground up. Pros and cons abound.

Perhaps you’re a home cook crafting products out of your home kitchen, but you realize soon enough that home kitchens are not approved by your local health authority and need to look into renting space. So then you start thinking about renting a brick-and-mortar space, but it’s costly to build and equip, and requires a long wait time to secure permits and licenses, not to mention the added costs like pest control and insurance. So then you decide to explore the pop-up restaurant route, but then you run into issues with limited food prep space, cold storage requirements and equipment.

You want to grow your business quickly and make it one that’s built to last in the long term, but there are a lot of obstacles in your path. What’s a new business owner and food entrepreneur to do?

What is a Commissary Kitchen?

For new food businesses, renting space in a commissary kitchen could be the ideal short-term option. Commissary kitchens are shared kitchens with commercial-grade equipment and facilities and usually found in a centralized location. It’s licensed for food service providers to use for food prep and storage, and is usually rented on a membership basis, which means new food businesses can cut down on upfront costs to starting their businesses.

It also means that they won’t have to buy expensive kitchen equipment or appliances, leasing a space, and licensing fees that apply to some licenses. In other words, it’s a welcoming, open kitchen door rather than a closed one.

Suspiro Lovers piping meringues
Suspiro Lovers piping meringues

Plus, since commissary kitchens are a shared space, business owners and food entrepreneurs also have access to a community of other food businesses. The support and advice that comes with community can be exceptionally important to a new business in those early stages.

What's the difference between a commissary kitchen and a commercial kitchen?

The two are tightly interlinked, but not the same thing. While all commissary kitchens are commercial kitchens, all commercial kitchens are not commissary kitchens.

Commercial kitchens are spaces outfitted with commercial-grade equipment. Their design and construction requirements take into account food handling, preparation, and food and cold storage spaces that are governed by local regulatory bodies. They’re typically found in restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals, hotels.

As for commissary kitchens, you can think of them as an extreme version of a commercial kitchen. They’re shared commercial kitchens, which means that they’re usually a vast room filled with a number of multi-use workstations and storage spaces that are shared by a number of business owners and like-minded food entrepreneurs chasing down a culinary vision.

Ravioli machine

Depending on the requirements of the food business, the commissary kitchen design and facilities will differ. For example, if the commissary kitchen is primarily supporting ghost kitchens (or delivery only restaurants), it’ll require a specialized ventilation system. But if the commissary kitchen has mostly bakers, then you might see a room full of ovens and related equipment.

Types of businesses that use commissary kitchens

The sky’s the limit when it comes to defining the types of food businesses that typically use commissary spaces, but we find that they typically fall under a handful of categories. You’ll get a better idea of the community that you’ll be a part of if you do decide to join a commissary, but also you’ll know how other businesses like yours first came knocking on the kitchen door at a commissary.

1. Ghost kitchens

Ghost kitchens are also known as “virtual restaurants,” or “cloud kitchens,” and they prepare meals available for delivery, take out, drive through or curb-side pickup. Ghost kitchens don’t have a storefront or indoor seating for customers, and so they save on the costs of leasing a brick and mortar space.

Ghost kitchens need facilities that are designed specifically for cooking with proper ventilation, and so their kitchen workstations and equipment set up most resemble the ones you’d find in professional restaurant kitchens.

As an example of a food business using the ghost kitchen model, meet Kozu Sushi Pizza, who runs Vancouver's first sushi pizza ghost kitchen out of Coho's commissary kitchens.

2. Catering companies

Catering companies, in the same vein, have a lot of similar facility and support service needs as ghost kitchens - except they operate more on a pre-order basis and sometimes serve meals at a high volume. Their offerings typically range from custom meal kit preparation, family-style dishes for special events, and serving up lunch for companies of various sizes.

Below, meet Blue Ivy House, a catering company serving Asian-Inspired meals for businesses, senior communities, and school lunch programs.

3. Consumer packaged goods (CPG)

Companies that have consumer packaged goods (CPG) create products that customers might use almost daily, and can be restocked regularly - especially if the customer is loyal to the brand. In the context of food-related CPG companies, products can range from the likes of a jar of hot sauce, a vacuum-sealed back of frozen, ready-to-bake cookies, to a bottle of kombucha.

CPG companies typically leverage commissary kitchens because they’re able to create and package their products in a food safe facility. Having access to commercial equipment also helps them streamline the production process, versus doing so in a home kitchen.

Below, meet Clarity Kombucha - a small batch kombucha company that ferments, brews, and bottles kombucha in Coho's kitchens.

4. Bakers

Bakers of all stripes, whether they’re pastry chefs or sourdough bread bakers, also use commissary kitchens to create their products - whether fresh or frozen. Food safety is one of the main benefits, but also having access to top of the line ovens, prep and cold storage spaces, are other reasons why bakers will forgo the home kitchen in favour of the commissary. Worth noting is that some bakers are wholesale producers, while others are direct-to-consumer and sell their products at farmers markets. Below, meet Steve's Gourmet Foods, classic croissants made by a pastry chef from France, that crafts his pastries out of Coho's commissary kitchens.

5. Gluten Free and Vegan

For those food businesses that have gluten-free or vegan products, it’s exceptionally important for them to work in a space that helps avoid cross-contamination. Food safety is paramount here, as you are selling to customers with dietary restrictions and allergies - and you’ll want to share equipment and workstations only with other like-minded creators.

Below, meet Happy Macadamia - a pastry chef that launched her business with the help of Coho's gluten free facility in Coho Pandora.

6. Restaurants that need more prep or storage space

Sometimes your brick-and-mortar space just isn’t enough in the short term, especially when you’re a business ready to scale up and need a bridge while building towards long-term success.

Needing additional prep or storage space is one of the main reasons why restaurants might work with a commissary kitchen. For example, a popular bakery might need more space for pastry creation near their brick and mortar space, or perhaps you own a cocktail bar without a kitchen, and want to start offering a brunch menu as well.

And maybe you’re a food truck specializing in poke bowls might need a large prep space for fish cleaning. Not to mention, food trucks will also require a commissary kitchen membership in order to have access to water (important for hand washing), and also be able to dump their greywater.

Also, a restaurant might be looking to expand their delivery footprint, expand their catering arm, and grow their retail program, and in all these instances - a commissary kitchen in a centralized location can solve a lot of these issues. Below, meet La Sella, a pizza food truck that prepares their authentic Italian pizza dough out of Coho Powell.

Want to start your own food business?

If you're inspired by the food businesses you've met above, and want to kickstart your food business dreams, explore the different Coho locations across the city here or support local businesses via their own websites.


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