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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 11 months ago

Early to Rise

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Christine Nordstrom runs a Sarasota commercial kitchen share where dozens of food-related businesses have gotten a boost. Her specialty: blunt feedback.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

The shared commercial kitchen Christine Nordstrom runs, Rise, provides entrepreneurs more than ovens and sinks.

Rise is also a combination of a co-work space and an incubator, where Nordstrom gives food-based business owners and entrepreneurs advice on everything from permits to product lines. The advice sometimes mimics a top chef-like TV show — with a dose of straight talk, not cushy compliments.

Nordstrom has experience to share from running businesses such as Sift Bakehouse and Five-O Donut Co. in downtown Sarasota. With a title of “creative opportunity enabler” on her LinkedIn page, Nordstrom's kitchen career dates back to 2000, when she graduated from noted hospitality school Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island with a degree in culinary business management.

She says sharing kitchen space didn't used to be a common concept. When she started out more than a decade ago, for example, she asked several people if she could share their kitchen. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” she says. “I think outside the box. How can we do it without having an expensive brick and mortar?”

Nordstrom found a space to share. She also ended up sharing a warehouse and working out of another retail store before she opened Rise about seven years ago. Her latest baked-good ventures, Sift Bakehouse and Five-O Donut Co., are popular in Sarasota. Five-O often sells out of donuts by early morning.

Gather ingredients

Because Nordstrom has started many food-based businesses, from stands at farmers markets to brick-and-mortar stores, she's able to help others launch a variety of companies. The list includes catering businesses, hot dog carts and cafes.

Word of her experience has gotten around Sarasota. Nordstrom says she gets 25 to 30 contacts a month about starting businesses, and she sits down for initial consultations with two to three people a month. “People call all the time asking for advice,” she says.

Her experience and knowledge of the industry allow her to size up business ideas fast. “I'm very honest with people,” she says. “Some people don't like it, others do.”

It's interesting to see what people come up with, she says, but the biggest challenge is finding people who will work well at Rise. “If you don't seem like a team player, it's not going to be a good fit,” Nordstrom says. “It's called a shared kitchen for a reason.”

In consultations, Nordstrom tells people the steps they need to start. Those steps include talking to them about which permits they need and how to go about that process, as well as clearly defining the product or range of products they will produce. She also tries to make sure they've secured a revenue source before coming to Rise.

“It's really hard to wade through the process on your own,” Nordstrom says. “It's overwhelming.” Some people, Nordstrom says, “come in, realize how much work it is and decide they don't want to do it.”

Recipe for Success

For the past three or four years, the workspaces at Rise have been full with various businesses, including a granola company, a baby food company and a sauce business. During that time, many people have grown their businesses and moved into spaces of their own.

Not all are successful. But Nordstrom doesn't take any flak from people whose businesses don't boom. “People blame me for their lack of success,” she says. “I don't take that. It's up to you.”

She suggests entrepreneurs at Rise make a single product or small set of products, with a premium on simple. Rise works well for people with “micro-businesses” that are hyper-focused, she adds. Her key advice: “Keep it focused. Those people are always the most successful.”

Ray Mabalot, who runs Mouthole BBQ with his wife, Nicole Mabalot, out of Rise, calls Nordstrom a “blessing,” adding that she's been “instrumental in getting us our original licensing and pointing us in the direction we wanted to go.”

Make it easy

As of early November, there were two open spaces at Rise, but that kind of availability is rare. At one point, Nordstrom had 15 users, and in total, dozens of companies have come through Rise, which occupies a 1,300-square-foot leased kitchen space.

Nordstrom has considered expanding, but she's held back for two reasons — because “rents have gotten so high in Sarasota” and the fact that she would need to hire a kitchen manager.

She uses Rise for production of some Sift Bakehouse items, particularly during busy season, January to April. Other users pay Nordstrom fees for the Rise facility. Plans vary on time, square footage and cost, but a key plan allows users to work at Rise for up to 25 hours a month for $250.

It's a flexible space, with some people coming in after work or at night when they have time to use the kitchen. Nordstrom tries to make it as convenient as possible for those using Rise. The hard part of the equation for food-based businesses is figuring out where to sell products, she says, adding that “we try to make the other part easy.”

Go Dough

The chimney cake pastries Aniko Gulyas makes start in Christine Nordstrom's kitchen.

Gulyas uses a station at Nordstrom's Sarasota shared commercial kitchen, Rise, where she makes the dough for her pastry company, Kurtos. After Gulyas makes the dough, she takes it to farmers markets and festivals where the dough rises and bakes in an oven. There, customers watch her make the traditional Hungarian spiral-shaped treats.

“She's found a way to make it very approachable,” Nordstrom says of the experience for Kurtos customers.

The treats come in savory and sweet versions, and the shape allows customers to pull the cakes apart in pieces to eat bite by bite. “In a crowded dessert section, it's unique,” Gulyas says.

Customers can buy the cakes online as well as at markets. Kurtos has shipped the pastries to California, Texas and other states nationwide.

Gulyas is from Hungary, as is Timea Molnar, who works with Gulyas on marketing for Kurtos. When Kurtos was founded in 2015, Gulyas experimented for months on the recipe. “I would call neighbors and friends,” she says, telling them to “come over and taste this.”

She started selling at markets and making the pastries for the wholesale market, thinking that part of the business would take off. But it didn't, Gulyas says, because it was missing the story behind the cakes.

“We made a lot of mistakes, but we changed course,” Molnar says. “It was a lot of trial and error.”

The first year, Kurtos broke even, and they started thinking about franchising. The second year, the company was profitable. She declines to elaborate on specific revenue figures.

Now Kurtos is ready to start franchising. Gulyas and Molnar are working with Miami-based franchise development company Franchise Creator to establish franchising opportunities.

As part of the process, Gulyas and Molnar worked on a 200-page Kurtos manual with the recipe, procedures and operations. Franchisees will receive the secret Kurtos recipe along with the detailed instructions.

Kurtos franchisees can choose to run a market stand, food truck, kiosk or brick-and-mortar store. Initial franchise fees will range from $19,900 for a mobile business to $29,900 for a brick-and-mortar store. “You can grow with it as a person, emotionally and financially,” Gulyas says.

Gulyas and Molnar plan to keep at least one area market for themselves and open a brick-and-mortar flagship store in Sarasota. That's important to them in part because it's an opportunity to get feedback from customers.

Gulyas' dream is to have kiosks serving Kurtos pastries in airports and shopping malls. Says Gulyas: “My goal is to spread the love of this in every state.”

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