Breaking Through the Bottleneck: Bringing Commercial Kitchens to Communities

In 2012, when Anne Little wanted to create a soup cart in Missoula, she couldn’t find a commercial kitchen that met her needs. After talking with other cooks and the Health Department, as well as visiting a few less-than-optimal kitchens, she and her husband, Pat, realized that what Missoula really needed was good commercial kitchen space (and maybe a soup cart). They started looking for a location and eventually opened Moonlight Kitchens in late 2014.

The space currently offers 2 kitchens, a work space, cleaning area, and loading area.

In 2015, Moonlight Kitchens applied for and received a “Growth through Agriculture” (GTA) grant from the state of Montana to install an 8’×12’ walk-in cooler and high-temp dishwasher, increasing the efficiency and usability of the kitchens thus reducing the cost to the cooks. Moonlight Kitchens continues to look for ways to help cooks and business entrepreneurs succeed, and currently offers a variety of  classes and events during the year to expose new cooks and the general public to their facility and the local food system in Missoula.

The mission of Moonlight Kitchens is “to connect our farmers with our neighbors through our cooks, and to run a triple bottom line business (people, profit, planet).” This means they work with, and donate to, related local non-profit food organizations, encourage the cooks to use their recycling facilities, provide cooks with information and access to local food suppliers, and facilitate their process of creating viable food businesses.

AERO staff had a brief interview with Anne, to ask for her thoughts on the 2016 Growing Food Businesses workshop, particularly as someone who is also working to educate and empower food producers!  Anne admitted that, while she couldn’t remember exact details, she thought the general information and handouts were helpful, and that like many other attendees, she found  the open discussion among participants to be highly useful.  “We appreciate making connections with other commercial kitchen businesses.  The information we got out of the workshop was good, but the connections were most valuable.”

When asked if Moonlight Kitchens has made any changes after the workshop, or after the revised Cottage Food Law, Anne admitted that the policy changes have actually decreased her business.  When cooks come in in to rent a kitchen, if it sounds to Anne like they could do their preparation and production at home, she makes sure to tell them.  “I’m not required by law to tell them, but even if I lose their business, I want the cooks to know they can save money by making their products at home,” she said.  This includes the homemade chocolate chip cookies or pastries that you find at any Farmers’ Market, which can now be produced at home under the cottage food law.

On the flip side, there are cooks who are making items  at home that are now legally required to have been prepared in a commercial kitchen.  Anne follows the legislative bills closely, in order to stay up to date on new laws, and weigh in on bills that may be beneficial to local food farmers and ranchers.

When asked why she and her husband are doing what they do, Anne laughed and said, “How much time ya got?  Pat and I are committed to supporting local farmers, which is basically our mission statement,” she says.  “In our experience, commercial kitchens are the bottleneck in local food systems.”  There are not enough spread throughout the state to support those who are producing Montana products.  After a longer discussion about processing and distribution centers in Montana, she said, “Supporting the local economy is important, especially with food security issues.”  

2017 will be Moonlight Kitchen’s third summer in operation.  They are keeping busy, especially after a winter spent implementing their Growth Through Agriculture grant for the cooler and dishwasher.   

Their local food passion extends far beyond the kitchen doors.  Anne has worked in food co-ops since the ’70s, has run several small businesses, and currently helps keep the Five Valley Seed Library going. She’s a former board member of MUD (Missoula Urban Demonstration Project) and a current member/owner of the Missoula Community Food Co-op. Pat’s background is in engineering. Originally from the UK, he’s worked for several large aerospace companies and most recently was employed by The Nature Conservancy doing computer support work. He’s served on the Missoula PlanningBoard and currently manages  theFive Valleys Audubon website. He’s also a co-op member/owner.  Anne and Pat have lived in Missoula since 2009.

 

Whenever possible, they go to Farmers’ Markets and talk to the vendors, inviting them to come and see their kitchens.  “We have regular potluck dinners for the public to meet the farmers.  15-20 people show up and we all just get together and talk!” she says.  It’s beneficial for farmers to meet their target buyers, and of course, the other way around also.

Anne feels that in addition to organizing workshops, AERO should revive Montana’s Grange Halls.  “They would be a great bridge between younger and older farmers, and AERO could help record and share the older generations’ knowledge.”  Similar to AERO’s Farm Improvement Clubs project from years ago, Grange participants acquired an impressive amount of practical knowledge and experience through field and farm research, education, and socializing.

We’re so grateful for Montana’s farmers, ranchers, and producers, and it’s easy to forget there are unsung heroes that aide in getting local products to us, the consumers.  Moonlight Kitchens has been unrivaled in the support of AERO and a sustainable Montana and we are eager to promote (and taste) all the products they help deliver!

(Note, parts of this are taken from the www.moonlightkitchens.com website)

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