“Sometimes you just don’t get it,” said Susan Tuveson of Kittery, describing her life in the late 1990s. She had moved to Maine from Minneapolis, Minn., and continued to pursue a career in law, despite the fact that she didn’t fully enjoy it.
Though she had practiced law in Minneapolis, she failed the Maine bar. It acted as a wakeup call, she said. She wasn’t doing what she loved: cooking. All her life, she had been creating good things to eat. Even when she was studying for the Maine bar exam, she taught cooking for the Kittery Adult Education program.
So she opened a handmade chocolate business, Cacao Chocolates. And nearly 10 years later, she broadened her calling into helping others do the same: In January, she opened Acorn Kitchen, a culinary resource for the area. People starting product lines or who want to launch food-related businesses, but who don’t have the resources to purchase their own equipment, rent her commercial kitchen to test their skills and recipes.
Others call her type of enterprise an incubator or a community kitchen. And their numbers appear to be increasing in Maine, slowly. Today, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry estimates there are about 10 to 12 across the state. Approximately 7,000 people have licenses to sell food to the public.
Community kitchens are one way to increase the chance a small business will succeed. Tuveson doesn’t just provide the space but acts as a mentor. Operating a business is about far more than the actual product: People must be up to speed on sanitation practices, good manufacturing processes, correct labeling, how to avoid allergens, how to develop recipes, how to build clientele, and how, ultimately, to figure out financing and gain self stability.
“When they come in and rent the place, it is their business,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s never about me. It’s about the people in there using it. That’s the fascinating thing to watch, is people exploring a whole new side of their creativity.”
It’s $20 per hour to rent the facility, which includes electricity, gas and laundry services. People also use the University of Maine as a resource, which can test the integrity of the products’ composition and packaging to determine shelf life and refrigeration needs. The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry helps with quality assurance.
Acorn Kitchen is new, but it’s drawn attention. In June, Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the agriculture department, visited Tuveson for Small Business Week.
The space is also being regularly used. One of Tuveson’s clients recently had her product picked up by Whole Foods. Her facility is regularly used by a farmer making value-added products for the farmers’ market. One woman is developing cookie gift boxes. Tuveson has a fudge maker. People with restaurants use the space to test new creations. It’s been used for cooking classes.
She expects and wants people to use the kitchen temporarily — ideally no more than two years — until they can take the next step, whether it’s working for a larger kitchen, obtaining financing to start a store or launching a new product line. Specialty foods producer Stonewall Kitchen started in a barn in Kittery and now has 6,000 wholesale accounts nationwide. If it can find a niche, others can, too.
For some, that means creating a community kitchen of their own. “I get contacted a lot by people interested in putting one together,” she said.
Tuveson, who reinvented her life to start Acorn Kitchen, has discovered she enjoys seeing others reinvent their lives as well. She said she wants to help people turn ideas into products.
“This expertise is out there for Maine people. It’s out there for the asking.”