Building or having access to a licensed kitchen is a huge hurdle for most small food-related businesses. This difficulty prevents many farmers, homesteaders, and cooks from preserving harvests and supplementing their income with the sale of cooked, baked, and canned products. In some countries, regions, and states there are “cottage industry” allowances made for people to be able to produce up to a certain quantity of “low risk” foods from a standard home kitchen. Here in the Virgin Islands we have no such system, so there is little choice but to push the limits of what is permitted under a farm license, or to build/outfit an additional kitchen for the sole purpose of commercial cooking. This is often a cost-prohibitive venture.
Thanks to great inspiration from some old friends on St John, in early 2016 I set about the process of outfitting a 40′ steel shipping container as a licensed kitchen. Completely separate from any residential structure, relatively fire-proof, and nicely sealed, a shipping container turned out to fulfill the structural requirements of a kitchen without the need for costly construction and permitting thereof. A 40′ container in semi-decent condition runs about $3000-$4000 here, plus another $1000 for the trucking and crane. A word from the [now] wise…the rust is worse than you think.
There were some setbacks and delays in obtaining a container, with things needing to be moved so that I had an appropriate setting for it, a little leveling work to be done (by hand), etc. Finally, near the end of April, my container was delivered. Begin the hard work of pressure-washing, painting, building and pouring permanent foundations (jacking up a container is kind of fun!), grinding and filling the hardwood floors, partitioning off the rear end (and adding a door) to be used as a laundry and storage room, cutting a hole for a vent fan (4″ grinders are indispensable), and building steps to safely access the kitchen door.
Next, the electrical and plumbing. Plumbing I was able to do myself, including a propane-fueled “instant” hot water heater with completely unintelligible translated-from-Chinese installation instructions. I’m still not sure what the various controls do, but I have hot water. Electrical is out of my comfort zone. I had to hire that out, and it was expensive! Somewhere around $2800, by my reckoning. It was also the part that took the longest time!
Whilst waiting for the electrical to be finished, I was acquiring kitchen stuff left, right, and center. Requirements here include a 3-bay stainless steel sink (plus handwashing), stainless steel prep counters, an extractor-style stove hood (I got away with a standard domestic one as I won’t be deep-frying), storage…obviously a fridge and freezer are necessary, power-sucking evils…
I was fortunate to obtain almost everything secondhand, apart from a 2-bay freestanding sink ($425 with shipping…turns out the health department would like me to have a 3-bay one instead…), and a $120 stove hood. Between a local restaurant closing down and a friend moving off-island, plus many hours on buy/sell facebook groups and craigslist, and many more haunting the thrift stores, yard sales, etc, I was able to find tables, the stove, fridge, storage racks, baker’s racks, oven pans, etc at very reasonable prices. It’s a game of patience and timing, and it worked out ok in the end. I even had the offer of a commercial-size stove, but decided that it was more than I needed, and went with a standard household one instead.
Space-wise, 27′ by 8′ is pretty decent. With all the basics, plus a desk and a 2nd chest freezer, it will be full. More storage space could be created with shelves, proper drainboards, and a few other amenities, but the basics are here, and the kitchen is fully functional and fully licensed, only 4 months after buying the container! All told, I put around $10,000 (and countless hours of work) into getting the kitchen to this point. It’s not cheap. It’s not going to be a possibility for everyone, but it is a different, more affordable and more flexible way to create a kitchen that can be licensed for commercial use. I hope that, as my friends inspired me, I will inspire others with this approach to a kitchen and whole new business possibilities!