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'Ghost kitchen' to open in Peoria's North Valley

The location of Springboard Kitchen on Spring Street in Peoria's North Valley neighborhood.
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This building at 614 Spring St. in Peoria's North Valley neighborhood will be the location of Springboard Kitchen.

A new, commissary-style community kitchen will soon be opening in one of Peoria’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Its presence stems from enactment of Illinois’ Cottage Food Operation Law of 2022 that allows certain foods to be made in home kitchens and sold directly to consumers with limited regulation, and the popularity of commissary or “ghost” kitchens that allow budding food entrepreneurs looking to rent valuable kitchen space to launch or advance their products.

Peoria food entrepreneur Andres Diaz, co-founder of Urban Acres Gardens, said his new commissary kitchen, located in a former medical building at 614 Spring Street, will be known as Springboard Kitchen. Thanks to a recent $105,000 grant received through the Illinois Local Food Infrastructure Program, Diaz will be able to accelerate the opening of Springboard Kitchen to sometime this spring.

“The grant money is going towards infrastructure [for] the new commissary,” said Diaz, who, along with his family, has grown their Urban Acres Gardens project to encompass around 17 or 18 garden spaces across Peoria’s North Valley since its 2018 inception. The gardens provide enough fresh and nutritious produce to feed local residents and supply the North Valley Farmers Market throughout the summer.

“We needed updates to the equipment and the building in order to have it fully licensed by the Department of Health. This will soon be a kitchen used by food entrepreneurs to grow their businesses,” he said.

Diaz believes his will be the first [or at least among the first] commissary kitchens to open in the Peoria area. After consulting with some of the food producers associated with Urban Acres and other potential stakeholders, the community activist and leader felt the presence of a reliable, well-run commissary kitchen would provide a vital opportunity for food entrepreneurs within his North Valley neighborhood and beyond.

“There is an opportunity here for that cottage baker to scale up their business, but also for some of those folks who’ve been selling their foods online, on Facebook or through [other] outlets," he said.

"We wanted to give them a place to do this safely as well as legally licensed through the Peoria Health Department.”

Diaz pointed out that lately a rash of new, non-chain restaurants have closed within six months of their initial opening. He hopes Springboard Kitchen will help cash-strapped local entrepreneurs succeed through his commissary concept, where many of the financial burdens of brick-and-mortar business ownership are non-existent.

“If we give the food entrepreneur the ability to get into the marketplace quickly and find out where their niche is, they can [produce food products] much more cheaply and effectively out of a commissary kitchen or ghost kitchen. Then as they scale up and get bigger, it’s their opportunity then to develop a business plan and use their successful trial run here to [compel] their bankers and others who may invest in their professional future,” Diaz explained.

Ghost kitchen boom spiked after pandemic

According to the online food and restaurant retail source Kickfin, ghost kitchens are essentially “restaurants without the dining space. Their focus is to sell and fulfill online food orders for delivery using third-party apps like Grubhub, UberEats, and DoorDash, or with their own delivery operation.” However, “because the concept is still evolving, there isn’t a hard-and-fast definition of a ghost kitchen.”

Proponents note that due to overhead costs associated with home food production, the commissary-style kitchen approach can help low-income food producers get their products into their local communities. “Now more than ever, the cost of running a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant is overwhelmingly high, with skyrocketing overhead costs in an uncertain demand period,” noted CloudKitchens.com, a ghost kitchen startup conceived by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

“Ghost kitchens provide you with prime real estate at a fraction of the cost, compared to brick-and-mortar. With ghost kitchens come endless possibilities in terms of what you can do to launch new brands or manage multiple virtual restaurants all in one place since your presence is online.”

Research into the ghost kitchen phenomenon shows that in addition to community-based, commissary-style kitchens such as Diaz’ Springboard Kitchen, many popular fast food chain restaurants turned to the ghost kitchen concept during the height of the pandemic while over 70,000 U.S. restaurants were being shuttered.

For instance, Wendy’s announced plans in 2021 to open 700 ghost kitchens with startup Reef Technology, according to a December 2023 CNN report. CloudKitchens bought more than 40 U.S. properties for ghost kitchens, and Applebee’s launched Cosmic Wings, a ghost kitchen startup that served Cheeto-flavored chicken wings.

However, the corporate-led ghost kitchen market appears to have crashed. Wendy’s abandoned its plans, while Applebee’s folded up Cosmic Wings and Kalanick’s CloudKitchens laid off its staff. “Some customers felt ‘fooled’ and ‘catfished’ when they learned that they ordered from what they thought was a small restaurant that instead turned out to be a big chain using ghost kitchen techniques,” CNN reported.

Unlike a corporate ghost kitchen, a community commissary facility such as Springboard Kitchen is a shared kitchen where space can be rented by the hour, or on a more permanent basis, for food storage, preparation, and cooking. They are fully licensed commercial kitchens that comply with all state and local food safety standards and are regulated and inspected by the local health department.

How to hook up with Springboard Kitchen

Diaz said that once operational, Springboard Kitchen will be able to accommodate dozens of local food producers each week in a fully equipped, sterile kitchen environment. He envisions taco, tamale and enchilada makers soon sharing kitchen space with bread bakers, candy crafters and sous chefs, each with their own distinctive brand and business plan for success.

Diaz will even help prospective food entrepreneurs to develop marketing plans and tackle licensing procedures in order to introduce their products to the public.

“We have plenty of oven, stove and fryer space so that folks can try these things out and get their products into the marketplace,” said Diaz, who hopes to announce a grand opening date for Springboard Kitchen before the end of May.

“We could see some food entrepreneurs producing their goods and selling them, whether it would be at the Peoria Riverfront Market or being able to put them on [grocery store] shelves, somewhere this summer.”

Local food entrepreneurs interested in contracting with Springboard Kitchen can reach out to Diaz via the Urban Acres Facebook page or by emailing UrbanAcresPeoria@gmail.com. In addition, a website has been established at www.SpringboardKitchen.com.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.