Thursday, August 12, 2010

Creating a Community Supported Kitchen: Interview with Jessica Prentice of Three Stone Hearth

"The community-supported kitchen idea was a fantasy that I had in my head for years, before we started this business. I was always playing with it like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be great if you had this kitchen, and you packed things in Mason jars. People paid a deposit, and then they returned them. They could get mineral rich bone broth, and people would all work together in the kitchen.' It was a fantasy, and, for me, it's incredibly exciting to see it actually happening. . . .

 . . . I think it's part of what life is about, as a human being, visualizing those things, then finding the ways to make them actually come into being and to live that life."

Jessica Prentice is a co-owner of Three Stone Hearth, a community supported kitchen in Berkeley, CA that uses local, sustainable ingredients to prepare nutrient-dense, traditional foods on a community scale. She is a professional chef, passionate home cook, local foods activist, and author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.  She is also co-creator of the Local Foods Wheel, and coined the word "locavore."

Below is an edited transcript of my interview with Jessica for the Big Vision Podcast.  You can also listen to it on the Big Vision Podcast homepage, via iTunes, or on the podcast player at the bottom of this post.

Our conversation began with Jessica describing what a community supported kitchen is:

Jessica Prentice: The idea behind the community supported kitchen is that we are modeling a new way of preparing and processing food on a community scale.  The idea is that, in this country, most food preparation and processing is happening in factories. We eat a lot of factory-processed foods, and it's having terrible consequences for our health and for the environment.

Then we have home preparation and processing, which is all great, but for a lot of us living in very small households, it's hard to cook from scratch three times a day. In times past, it made a lot more sense to do that, partly, because we lived in larger households or lived in communities or villages, where food preparation happened in community, for the larger community.

We're trying to bring back that concept: food is getting prepared and processed in community, a smaller community, for a larger community. The community supports us by ordering our food (we have an online ordering system), but also, our original capital came from small loans from members of our community.  We weren't bank-financed, at all. We pay them back with interest.  They were investors, but it was definitely community supported, in that sense. Most of those people are still our customers, so they support us in many ways.

One of the main ways that we are community supported is that the community comes in and helps to prepare the food. The vast majority of the people who work in the kitchen are volunteers or apprentices who are doing it, sometimes out of service, but mostly in exchange for learning and an experience that they would have a hard time finding somewhere else:  working in a commercial kitchen with these types of ingredients and learning the principles and philosophy behind what we do.

Britt Bravo: You are one of four or five co-owners?

Yes, we're a worker-owned cooperative and five of us started the business: Porsche Combash, Misa Koketsu, Catherine Spanger, and Larry Wisch were the co-founders with me.  Unfortunately, Larry has been out for the past year and a half on disability so the four of us have been running the business. We operate as a cooperative. We have weekly meetings, we make all decisions together, and that's been a huge journey in and of itself. We've been in business for four years and we were planning the business for a year before that, so, we've been working together pretty intimately for five years.

Do you think cooperative ownership is an essential element of having a community supported kitchen?

It's not necessarily the only way to do it, but I do think it's pretty hard to do anything on the scale that we're doing as a single owner. I would recommend to anybody who was thinking about starting a business like that, that they find preferably at least two people to work with them. The cooperative is really nice because; for example, it has allowed us to take breaks.  I had a baby, so I was on maternal leave for three months. My business partners handled the business while I was away. If somebody gets sick, like Larry did, the business partners are able to handle it. The enterprise doesn't come to an end, and we're able to take vacations. All of my business partners were able to take about six weeks off in the past year to get a little sabbatical from holding up the business. So, that is one of the things that is nice about have more people own it.

The other thing is that there's a period of time in the beginning of a business when you have to work really hard, and you don't make a lot of money. To have more people that are owners, and have that sense of commitment, I think, is important to get through that hard stage. Then, eventually, hopefully, you ramp up, and you can hire people and pay people what is necessary to be paid.  Having more than one or two people who are deeply invested in this business, I think, really helped it to get as far as it's gotten. We're in a really good place with it, and have really high hopes for the future.

Can you talk a little bit about how the volunteer and apprenticeship program work?  

I asked for questions for you from my blog, Facebook and Twitter readers and followers, and someone asked, in relation to that:

"I'm interested to know, with such amazing volunteers and apprentices coming through Three Stone Hearth, what do they offer folks once they complete their time there and move on to other organizations, communities etc.?  How do they stay in touch and maintain collaborations?"

Well, that's actually something that we're working on now. It's been fairly informal. Volunteers pitch-in and do whatever needs to be done. We have one volunteer who has been with us pretty much all four years. She still comes every week, and she just loves it. We have some volunteers that are retired. It is a really important place for them to come for community and connection. We all sit down together for tea and lunch everyday. So, for a lot of people, it feeds their need to be in a community and contributing in a meaningful way.  We also have lots of younger volunteers all the way down to older teenagers, 17-18 years old, and then college students.

For a lot of people, there's a lot of interest in sustainable foods, artisanal production, and in cooking as a profession, but there aren't very many places where people can start out, dip their toes in and see how it works.  There are culinary training programs, like the one that I went to in New York. There's one here with Bauman, in Berkeley; but for a lot of people, they're expensive. It's hard for people to make that commitment without necessarily knowing if this is the right field for them. So, this is a chance for people to get into the kitchen, work with the food, work with the concepts, and see how they like it and what they want to go on to do.

Really, the apprenticeship is what you make of it. The people who are able to commit the most time get the most out of it. We're able to give them more and more recipes to work with. We tend to work more with the recipes with the apprentices. People who give us more of a time commitment get to do more of the actual cooking. Volunteers, who just come once a week, will often find themselves jarring things or bagging granola, which is super helpful, but it's more for those people who want the community and to pitch in and help.

People who really want to learn how to cook are better off with the apprenticeship program. We offer a weekly lesson where we explore the culinary principles that our business is based on. We have lots of written materials about the recipes and how we do things.  People read through, and then, they make something, get to taste it, and adjust it. Frankly, that's really how you learn to cook.

Even though I went to cooking school, the most meaningful parts were just cooking and tasting. I mean, there's the book learning, too, but a lot of that, you can do on your own.  When I graduated from culinary school, I got a job. It was really on the job that I learned how to do a lot of stuff.   I think the reality is, with culinary training, a lot of it is learned on the job. Here's a free job, a free learning experience where they're contributing to the business and they're not having to pay for it, but we also don't have to pay them. We just have to offer them the structure that they need to be able to learn.

We also take groups. Sometimes a group of people will come together and have a joint experience of working in the kitchen together. The kind of food that we do here is fairly unique.  For a lot of people, it's really the only place they can get exposure to the kind of ingredients that we use, and the kind of cooking that we do.

What makes the food you're cooking unique?

We're inspired by the nourishing traditions, Weston A. Price approach. There's just aren't a lot of people out there that are doing it on any kind of professional scale, other than personal chefs and stuff like that.  We work a lot with animal products, but we work with pastured, humanely raised grass-fed types of animal products. For a lot of people, that really matters. They want to learn to work with meat, but they want to feel really good about how the meat was sourced. We do a lot of bone broths.  We work with organ meats. We do a lot of fermentation.  We make sauerkrauts and kimchis. We make beet kvaas and kombuchas, so, lacto-fermented beverages.

It's fairly unusual to be able to work with those kinds of ingredients. People have the opportunity to work in a professional kitchen environment where it's not just about the financial bottom line, and there is a lot of real attention to the ecological and spiritual issues around food, which is part of what draws people into food in the first place.

To go back to that person's question, do you feel like you are growing a network of people?

Absolutely. We do have a Facebook Page for the former apprentices where they are starting to network with each other, volunteers and people that have come through the kitchen.

We're in the planning stages of offering a seminar for people who want to start their own CSK.  We have a lot of people that come through the apprenticeship and who have a dream of doing something similar to this.

It has always been our goal to create a model that would be replicable. So far, Tressa is the only person who has done that in Oregon, taking what we're doing and morphing it into what would work for her. She's been in business a few years now.  She's been doing well.

It has always been our goal to seed these all around the country. Part of how we do that is the apprenticeship because as people come, they work here, and they get a feeling for it, but it's still hard to get over the hump of actually starting a business.  One thing that we haven't been able to offer too much of, until recently, is the nitty gritty financial back-of-the-house business planning stuff.

That's what the seminar will be: this is how, as a business, we operate. You might already know how we make our granola, or how we do these other things, which actually is very important. I think there will be people who will come to the seminar, who won't have apprenticed with us.  I think they would still get a huge value from coming and actually working in the kitchen because there's no better way to experience what we're doing than to just do it with us.  But, just doing that part doesn't necessarily give you a lot of exposure to what happens behind the scenes, or how we started, in terms of how we built our customer base and all that.  The seminar is intended to cover those kinds of topics more in depth.

If someone can't come to your seminar, what tips do you have for starting a CSK in their community?

We have a sheet that we send out, and we offer a free, 45-minute consultation for somebody who is interested in doing it.

We've created a web-based inventory and ordering system, and one of our goals is to make that available. That was one of our biggest capital expenses in the beginning was having that programmed. A programmer had to write it from scratch.  One of our goals is to make that available to people at a price that will save them a lot of money, because they won't have to have a programmer write it, but it will also help us to recoup some of those costs.   A huge part of this is computer based: it's a web-based ordering system.  There's not really anything off the shelf that will work to do everything that you need it to do for this kind of business.

So, it sounds like the online ordering infrastructure is really important. Anything else about researching the market for your area, or picking your co-owners or any other tips: "This is what I learned. Don't do this?"

Yes. I learned a lot of things along those lines, but they are fairly in depth and subtle. There aren't any quick tips.  I do think that it's advisable to start in a small way with jumping in, doing some piece of this, and getting to know the farmers in your area, your suppliers and what's out there.

One of the big questions is: is there a market for this kind of food in your area? How connected are people that are interested in traditional food stuff?  Get to know health care practitioners, and your farmers and ranchers.  Dialing into whatever community there is around the Weston Price stuff in your area would be really important, although this model could potentially be applied to a vegetarian or a vegan diet too.  It's not necessarily a Weston Price thing, although what we're doing is, and I think that's a huge part of our success. 

We have a lot of health care practitioners that refer people to us. That's how we get a lot of customers: people who are told by a doctor, "You need to eat these pastured bone broths." People either don't have the time, or they are not well enough to make them themselves.   It has this viral impact. It's all word of mouth, but people pass the word along.

What has been your biggest success? What's the thing that you are the most proud of?

When we started this business, we very much saw it as an experiment. We didn't know whether it would work. We intended it to work, but we tried to be really open-minded. A lot of things changed, as we went along, from our original sort of ideas. But, once we settled in and figured out what was working, it's working. I think that our biggest success is that we are still doing it, and that we've got this big new space that we've expanded into. We're in a very visible location so a lot more people are seeing our name and having questions, "What are we doing here?"

The community-supported kitchen idea was a fantasy that I had in my head for years, before we started this business. I was always playing with it like, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if you had this kitchen, and you packed things in Mason jars. People paid a deposit, and then they returned them. They could get mineral rich bone broth, and people would all work together in the kitchen." It was a fantasy, and, for me, it's incredibly exciting to see it actually happening.  It's actually my job to help to run this business. It's not a "Wouldn't it be great if" idea anymore.  I think the distance between those things is always a bit surprising.

When you have a fantasy about something, and then the thing actually happens, it isn't really the way you fantasized about it. I think that can be hard sometimes, unless you're really able to let go of all that and say, "Wow! This is really happening.  Whatever it is, the thing that I set my intentions on, the thing that I wanted to manifest is manifest in the real world and of course, it's got real world constraints, but it's actually not just an idea anymore. It's a manifest reality."

It's a pretty amazing experience. I think it's part of what life is about, as a human being, visualizing those things, then finding the ways to make them actually come into being and to live that life.

What has been the business's biggest challenge and how are you working to solve it?

Well, one of our greatest challenges has been around physical location.  In one sense, we've been very lucky. We found a kitchen very quickly, when we were looking. We were down near Aquatic Park in West Berkley for the first two-and-a-half years, and it came very well equipped. It was kind of this amazing blessing, but, then the building was sold, we got evicted, and finding another place was challenging. We ended up subletting half of this space.  We were sharing this space with a business that went out of business.  We're still a little bit precarious. We have a short-term lease.  If we'd had a lot more capital, perhaps we could have bought a space and built out a kitchen, but that wasn't really feasible for us, so we had to work with what we could find.

Because there aren't community-supported kitchens in the world yet, there aren't kitchens that are tailor made for us. There are restaurant kitchens, which don't work very well for us, and there are catering kitchens, which don't work very well for us. We ended up finding a kitchen that was in a former grocery store space, which has been actually really good, but we don't have a long-term lease here.

Our business is going great, but in a sense, the rug could get pulled out from under us at any time, and it did, in our old location.  It's really hard to find commercial kitchens in the Bay Area, so I would say that was one of our bigger challenges.

What's your big vision for Three Stone Hearth? Where do you want the business and the CSK model to be in five or 10 years?

Our vision is to see other CSKs elsewhere.  We would love there to be a handful of CSKs in cities around the country that were connected to the owners: they came and apprenticed here, did our seminars, and we're offering them some kind of technical support.

They may not be doing everything that we're doing, or doing what we're doing in the same way, but the basic concept is still the same: very nutrient dense, healing food is accessible to more and more people.  I think it's really important for people in the community to have a sense that they can join in and be in the kitchen and that there's a lot of transparency. They can see how everything is made. It's not secret; it's not behind closed doors.

It's also important that the CSKs are supporting small ranchers and farmers in their areas. It's really nice for a ranch or farm to have an account that's big enough to make an impact on their business, to expand their production; for example, but it's still small enough that the needs can be met.  I think we've really helped to support local farmers and ranchers that way, and I would like to see infrastructures built in more cities where there is access to local pastured grass-fed meats, for example.  We know there is a lot of infrastructure that's required to make that possible, quite a lot.

We are lucky in the Bay Area to have some of the suppliers that we have: Marin Sun Farms for our meats, Veritable Vegetable for our produce, and direct relationships with lots of ranchers for almonds and rice and other things.  The more need there is, the more of those infrastructures and other businesses will have a chance to pop up.  Creating a whole web of connections in your area that's supporting a local food system is really exciting to me

I was Googling and trying to find other CSKs, so I know you guys are pretty much the first.


And then I found one in Portland, Oregon, which I think you mentioned was someone who had worked here, and then one in Portland, Maine.  Are there more that I wasn't able to find?

No. We're not familiar with those folks in Maine. I think they started it out of a store. There are lots of variations on how this model could work. I'm not really that clear on what they're doing there. This whole idea of "community supported" has gained some traction in lots of areas. There are some community supported fisher people, and community supported bakers. There are meat CSAs, community supported agriculture, but around meat. It's one of the ways that communities are reconnecting to the source of their food.

It's just not realistic for a lot of people to cook from scratch all the time.  What we're doing is supporting people eating at home, but giving them some of the elements that are making it easier to make that a routine, and to eat healthfully.

A huge part of that is the nutrient density of our food. It's really nice to see people making that shift in their mind to say, "Food is something that's important enough in my life that I'm going to order it in advance. I'm going to go on a special day and I'm going to pick it up. And I'm going to value what's being offered here." It's been really rewarding to see how many people really value it.

I just got an email forwarded to me by one of my business partners from one of our customers who was basically like, "Thanks be to God for your business because you guys keep me healthy."  He said, you know, "I just can't believe there are all these angelic beings there cooking for me."

People have stuff that they're dealing with, health issues, and to feel like there is somebody cooking for them, that's nourishing them, you know, we're sort of like the "mamas" that people need.  You need mothers and grandmothers that are nourishing you, and we just don't have a society that's structured like that, so for some people, we do that.  Even though we're a business, we're very much humanly connected to our community of people, and that feels like right relation.

I have a blog called "Have Fun, Do Good," so I always like to ask people, how are you having fun in doing good?

It's an amazing privilege to be able to do what you love for a living. Part of one of our goals with setting up this business was right livelihood for ourselves, and hopefully for others, to create a model that would enable other people to create that right livelihood. We started as just a worker-owned cooperative, but we have employees now, and our turnover rates are very low so I think that our employees feel lucky to work with us. It feels good to be offering jobs, especially in a down economy.

The other thing that's pretty amazing is the kind of spiritual growth that happens when you work in a cooperative with other people.  While it's not always "fun" fun, it does feel like the kind of growth that we're all going through is really important and therapeutic.  We're all growing a lot as individuals in relation to one another, and in relation to this business. The business is holding us as whole people, not just automatons who come to work and do our jobs, but as whole people. There is something really rewarding about that, to be able to bring all of yourself to your workplace, to feel held and to make a contribution.  You're not disassociated, which I think happens for some people with their work.

Some days it is just terrific fun.  I spend a lot of my time writing recipes and working on menus, and frankly there's nothing really more fun to me than planning menus.  The fact that I get to do it for a living is great, although it's a lot of hard work too. I don't want to romanticize it. It's nitty gritty hard work, but it's something that I really enjoy.

I think each of us has been able to find some things within the business that are things that we really enjoy, and that always has to change, too. We always have to be looking at, OK, am I still being fulfilled with the stuff that I'm doing on a daily basis? We're constantly, constantly evolving, and our structure is constantly evolving as we learn, "This works, this doesn't, this is meeting my needs, this doesn't." 

We're working out what kind of vacation time we want, and because we're the owners of this business, we get to make it up. We've all worked really hard for four years and so, how do we want to model what is a sustainable lifestyle in a pretty workaholic society? We're actually making a profit now as a business, so figuring out how we pay ourselves is a process, too. Every part of it is an adventure.

Is there anything else you'd like to add before we close?

One of the things that is evolving is our website, It was our starting website, so it's almost a historical document now. We're working on a new website that's going to be WordPress based, so it's going to be much more interactive. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, we'll go live with that.  If you're tooling around and checking things out, check it out again in a few months and see where we're at because that is shifting as well.

Also, if you're in the Bay Area, we're open to the public on Wednesday evenings for pickup from 5-7 PM, and Thursdays all day from 10 AM-4 PM.  We also have walk-in sales, so you can just walk in off the street and take a look at what we have for the week and see if you want to pick something up.  Other than that, we're a production kitchen, so we're not really open to the public but at those times we encourage people to come in, get a brochure and see the kitchen. We have usually some samples of the food so you can taste things. Our menu changes every week, so there will be different things on offer each week.

Also, anybody can sign up on our website, and create an account.  They'll get our weekly updates and see what's on the menu. You can order as frequently, or as infrequently as you want.  We're not like a CSA, in the sense that you don't have to subscribe and get something every week. We have lots of people who come once a month, or even once every six months, and then lots of people come every week.  It's really up to you.

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  1. Thank You Britt and Jessica!
    Can hardly tell you both just how encouraging it is to hear this conversation! The sharing of this communication between the two of you is greatly valued here! Communication is life and it is also the foundation for community and I get a lot of life and a deep sense of community through what is published here!

    In Deep Gratitude!
    Chef Jem

  2. Hi Chef Jem,

    I'm so glad you found the interview useful and inspiring (:


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