Food makers find a business lifeline amid COVID-19
From food truck owners to salsa makers, many culinary entrepreneurs are tapping the commercial kitchens of PREP Atlanta, boosting its expansion plan financed by Wells Fargo.
After COVID-19 nearly shut down Atlanta’s restaurant industry, scores of food businesses found a lifeline in PREP Atlanta. From food truck owners and caterers to salsa makers, they created their fare in PREP’s commercial kitchens and flourished on take-out orders, despite the pandemic.
“When the shutdown hit, we were in a good position to help a lot of food entrepreneurs. As part of the food supply chain, we were deemed essential by the government. So we became quite relevant as restaurant dining was going down and off-premise eating was going up.” — Mitchel Jaffe, CEO of PREP Atlanta
“When the shutdown hit, we were in a good position to help a lot of food entrepreneurs,” said Mitchel Jaffe, CEO of PREP Atlanta, or Culinary Facilities of Georgia, LLC. “As part of the food supply chain, we were deemed essential by the government. So we became quite relevant as restaurant dining was going down and off-premise eating was going up.”
PREP is among a growing number of U.S. firms that now specialize in shared or private kitchen space for food entrepreneurs. With its combined 200,000-square-foot campus serving more than 200 firms, PREP says it is arguably the largest U.S. player in the thriving niche business. And with plans to enter the Austin, Texas, market early next year, it is about to get larger — buoyed by $10 million in expansion financing from Wells Fargo.
PREP came to Wells Fargo through George Kushner of Wells Fargo Private Bank, Jaffe’s financial advisor, according to Alan Dishman, lead banker for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking in Decatur, Georgia. Dishman and Mid Thorne, the business development officer in Atlanta, worked with PREP on the financing. They were finalizing the deal in March when the pandemic shutdown hit.
“We were certainly concerned about how COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders would affect PREP,” he said. “But they pivoted incredibly well, continued to sign up new members, and became even more critical to the survival of their small business members. Now they can’t even keep up with the demand, and they have a long waiting list.”
Aboard The Loaded Burger food truck
Since its inception six years ago, PREP has used a monthly membership fee model that provides members with different tiers of access — from the shared space to their own private kitchen facility. It also offers a range of “accelerator” services, including purchasing, mentoring, and networking support.
That approach has helped food entrepreneurs develop their business while saving a bundle in startup costs and other expenses, said Michael Renner, who co-owns The Loaded Burger food truck with his wife, Vanita.
“The fallout from COVID-19 really surprised us at the beginning,” Renner said. “But after maybe a couple of weeks off, we’ve been running four to six days a week, doing everything from preorders for neighborhood events and meal planning for hospital workers to feeding Amazon delivery drivers and teachers at local schools. We adapted, and it’s worked.”
The rise of Georgia Sourdough
“PREP has been invaluable. Without it, I don’t even think I could have opened Georgia Sourdough. It has definitely changed my life and made this business possible at the scale it is today.” — Tracy Gribbon, founder and baker-in-chief of Georgia Sourdough
In 2015, after her latest venture in the restaurant business had ended, Tracy Gribbon sat at her kitchen table pondering her future. To pass the time, she had started recreational cooking and created some sourdough recipes for cookies and crackers.
“I was looking out the window, having one of those ‘what’s next?’ moments, and I saw a jar of my crackers on the window sill,” she said. “I thought to myself, maybe people would actually buy these.”
Less than a month later, Georgia Sourdough Co. was born, with Gribbon at the helm as founder and baker-in-chief. Its flagship product: crackers baked in gourmet flavors with the freshest, healthiest ingredients she could find. And they sold so well that Gribbon needed production capacity far beyond her home kitchen.
That’s when she found PREP, signed up for a shared kitchen, then expanded to a private dedicated space as her sales increased. Today, her eight-employee operation produces nearly 1,000 bags of crackers daily as Georgia Sourdough’s footprint has reached nationwide.
“PREP has been invaluable,” Gribbon said. “Without it, I don’t even think I could have opened Georgia Sourdough. It has definitely changed my life and made this business possible at the scale it is today.”
Catering to the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’
PREP Atlanta’s Jaffe said he’s inspired to hear the stories of PREP’s small business owners who have endured and overcome so many challenges to succeed despite the pandemic.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is most inspiring to me,” he said. “I think everyone was immediately stunned when COVID-19 happened. You could see it in the looks on their faces. Things started shutting down, and many people were out of work. There were some strong emotions, very strong emotions around here. But to press on after that initial fear, to survive, and eventually to flourish again, they really tapped into an inner strength. It was amazing to see.”