Before you see Union Kitchen you can’t really understand what it is. I told my friends that this summer I was going to work for a “food business incubator” (air quotes always required) that helped small food businesses get off the ground. I was curious about Union Kitchen and thought their mission was important—I wanted to work for a company that promoted locally owned food businesses and face-to-face interactions in the food system, and Union Kitchen seemed to do that. But I didn’t understand the day-to-day of Union Kitchen until I got here, and it turns out that that is the most important part.
I found my internship at Union Kitchen through a program called FoodWorks, run by Middlebury College. For two months, I lived with eleven other kids, all doing food-related internships in DC, and took a course called “Exploring Local Food Systems.” Through the course we got to see many parts of the local DC food system. We met with restaurateurs, urban gardeners, politicians, and even with Union Kitchen’s founders. One question that kept arising was the importance of the local food movement. Critics of local food claim that it is an elitist movement, because local food is more expensive on account of its small scale or because local food can only be purchased at venues that cater to the upper class. Others say that local food is more sustainable and personalizes the food system. Not all of the people we met through our class held the same opinion on local food, but Union Kitchen convinced me of the movement’s importance.
In one all-staff meeting, my boss (who is such a boss) Mary Beth, the Director of Marketing, posed a seemingly simple question to the group: “What is Union Kitchen?” – Stemming from my experiences over my two months here, this is my answer.
Union Kitchen is the people we interact with every single day. It is all of the incredible, driven, and exuberant staff who make the operation run. It is Jonas and Cullen, our fearless leaders, pushing the Union Kitchen staff and members to always reach further. It’s the Membership department that brings in new Members, helping them start or expand their food businesses. It’s all of the business owners who come to the Kitchen to cook and to learn from their peers. It’s the Distribution department that brings the products of these businesses, made by producers we get to interact with every day, to stores where more local residents can support local businesses. It is the Catering department that expertly pulls together the products of many different Union Kitchen members to create gourmet meals, buffet stations, or even a snack bar, so that, again, more DC residents can experience DC-made products.
Union Kitchen is the two-ingredient chocolate bar made by Adam of Undone Chocolate who sits next to me in the conference room with his intern Liz discussing their next demo at a grocery store or changes in their branding. Union Kitchen is the happy hour at Ivy City, our new location, where I met a woman who works all over the world in international development, but her dream is to start a micro-green business. Union Kitchen is our head Kitchen Steward, once an inmate, who now knows more about how the shared kitchen runs than anyone and who is absolutely crucial to making operations run smoothly. Union Kitchen is when one of our member catering companies brings home extra food from an event and all of the staff and members get to have a lunch party. Union Kitchen is ordering the best double-chocolate cake in DC from Rare Sweets, a Union Kitchen alumni member who now has her own bakery and a successful retail and catering business.
Union Kitchen is the community that is created by all of these moving parts and passionate people.
Union Kitchen is creating a new, personal, local DC food system. Working here has taught me that it is possible to have a local business and make a living by catering and selling to grocery stores, or opening up your own store. It is possible to have a system in which people know who makes the food they eat, as opposed to buying from anonymous international food companies. I hope the model created by Union Kitchen in the US will be an example to other cities in the country and even the world.