Tom Murro, Chef Space Director

If you want a vegan Cuban sandwich in Louisville, you might head to V-Grits in Germantown. If you’re craving lemon pepper buffalo wings, you might opt for Daddy Rich’s in Old Louisville. If the taste of the islands is your style, you might set sail for Open Caribbean Kitchen in Newburg.

But if you want to see where these and other local food businesses got their start, head west to Chef Space in Russell, a kitchen incubator in the building that once housed Jay’s Cafeteria. Since it opened in November 2015, Chef Space has helped more than 65 entrepreneurs launch food businesses. And we’re not just talking brick-and-mortar restaurants. Chef Space clients have started food trucks, catering operations, and businesses that produce packaged foods ranging from ice cream to tamales to kombucha.

Chef Space today

Today, 33 businesses call Chef Space home, according to director Tom Murro. Some were started by professional chefs who were ready to strike out on their own, while others were started by people who’d never set foot in a commercial kitchen. And many were started by residents of Russell and surrounding neighborhoods looking for a way to take better care of their families and communities. “From Russell and surrounding ZIP codes, we’ve had over 10 businesses that have started,” Murro said.

Tools of the trade

Chef Space’s most visible asset is its 13,556-square-foot commercial kitchen, which includes ovens, food processors, fryers, meat grinders, mixers, and all the other tools of the trade. Monthly reservations start at $900 per month, but many people opt for the $20 hourly rate, which seems a bargain given what that rate includes. “We cover the overhead; there’s no separate utility fees,” Murro said. “We have soap, paper towels, your cleaning chemicals, your sanitizers, gloves—really everything but hair restraints.”

And kitchen space is just part of what the incubator offers. Many clients start off in the Entreé-preneurship program, a free eight-week class that offers a soup-to-nuts introduction to the restaurant business. Others come for technical assistance on everything from developing business plans to securing loans.

Loan underwriting

That last part is relatively easy because Murro and a colleague are business development specialists for the Small Business Administration, and Chef Space’s parent, Community Ventures, underwrites the loans. “We can help get you set up with microlending, anywhere from a $1,500 to $10,000 loan that requires very little collateral and not great credit,” Murro said. “Typically to get a loan like that you need cash flow, collateral and credit. A lot of our clients aren’t able to demonstrate those three C’s.”

Another important “C” at Chef Space is collaboration. A food truck owner might resell another client’s products, for example, or two restaurateurs might go in on a big order from a food vendor.

And the collaboration extends to an organic network of entities serving West Louisville that includes Chef Space—groups such as OneWest, New Directions Housing Corporation, the Community Foundation of Louisville, Louisville Forward, and the LEE Initiative.

“All those groups together kind of add their piece to the pie,” Murro said. “It’s used as a buzzword, but comprehensive community development is really everyone’s main focus. How they attack that is a little different, but all these groups are really dedicated to that mission.”