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What's Cooking in Uptown Kitchen?

Kelly LeCoy in her kitchen.

Kelly LeCoy in her kitchen.

Working with fresh produce is an early lesson at the kitchen.

After cooking, students have  a large area to sit and eat.

The cooking space of the Uptown Kitchen.

Uptown Kitchen is Grand Rapid's first kitchen incubator. While only open a year, it has rooted itself in our local economy by helping tenants take their tastiest recipes from their kitchens into retail storefronts.
Hometown proud from the beginning, LeCoy grew up in Hudsonville and graduated from Tri-Unity Christian High School. Inspired by her grandfather's passion for business, she graduated from Calvin College with a degree in business and marketing. "Many people who see Uptown Kitchen for the first time assume I'm cook by trade," laughs LeCoy. "They are surprised to learn that I'm more interested in the business side of things; I love branding products and brainstorming. I enjoy the whole process really."
Before her idea for Uptown Kitchen emerged, LeCoy began thinking more intentionally about the food industry and what it meant to eat local.
"I grew up in a typical American family," says LeCoy. "You went to the grocery store and didn't think about where the food came from or how it was grown."
In 2008 and 2009, organic food became a major trend in the U.S. It was pulled to the forefront and seemed to be everywhere. LeCoy took notice and as a college student, starting learning more about food and how eating local impacted the economy.
"It's been a long process for me to change the way I eat," says LeCoy. "I try to eat as seasonally as possible and am still learning along the way."
Her interest in eating local was put to good use when she began her final thesis as a senior at Calvin College. Required to develop a business plan for a new venture or idea, LeCoy began noticing something strange. At Art of the Table, many local food producers wanted the owner to sell their handmade goods. The owner wasn't allowed to do so because of federal regulations; food must be produced in a commercial kitchen if it's to be sold in a retail store.
"It's incredibly expensive to open your own commercial kitchen," says LeCoy, "I saw a gap between food entrepreneurs in Grand Rapids and the retail market. We needed a space where local cooks could produce their products and begin to cultivate their businesses."
LeCoy finished her thesis and began to move on from the idea. "I thought ‘that was that' and assumed I would move to a city like Chicago, join a marketing firm, and begin working my way up the corporate ladder," says LeCoy.
Then she got a call from her professor at Calvin asking her to present her business plan at a Calvin competition. She won, and then presented at the regional level, winning that competition as well and receiving $4,000. In 2011, LeCoy had decided to stay in Grand Rapids for good and began thinking seriously about her senior thesis idea. She presented her business plan at 5X5 Night, where five competitors had five minutes to convince the judges that their business idea was worth funding. She took the top prize of $5,000 home that evening.
"5X5 played a huge role in promoting my idea," says LeCoy. "The day after I won I began receiving tons of e-mails from interested food vendors and organizations, and I decided to follow my dream."
Uptown Kitchen has been operational for over a year now and houses 20 licensed businesses. Many businesses have seen success since moving into the kitchen incubator.
Scoville Farms, manufacturer of Everidae Sweet Habañero Sauce, will be stocked at select Meijer locations. Deliciousity, known for their raw and vegan desserts, has become available at Bartertown Diner and Harvest Health Foods. Not all potential vendors see success, though. Some decide to stick to their home kitchen in the end.
"I like that Uptown Kitchen serves as a resource for people to really understand what it takes to run a business. It's a low risk environment where they can pursue their dreams," says LeCoy.
Not only does Uptown Kitchen serve as a place to grow a business, but also provides a space to grow the surrounding community. Located in the Uptown business district, LeCoy would like her kitchen to become the center of food-related community outreach in Grand Rapids.
"The table is where community is formed," says LeCoy, "I want to be a place where home cooks can learn more about intentional eating and where people can cook and share a meal together in a fun, relaxing environment."
She has partnered with Molly Clauhs and Chris McKellar of Grand Rapids Cooking School to do just that.
Grand Rapids Cooking School operates out of Uptown Kitchen and sources local food as much as possible. They offer a diverse selection of cooking classes aimed at bringing people together to have fun and learn how to enhance their home cooking with new and interesting recipes. LeCoy intends to further strengthen her partnership with the school this year by offering multiple classes a week to a wide array of demographics, featuring guest cooks and unique cuisines.
When asked what Uptown Kitchens' goals are as they embark on year two, LeCoy responds confidently, "I want to offer more opportunities for the community to interact with our space. I also want to be more intentional about providing resources to the businesses that lease our space."
Uptown Kitchen is open 24 hours a day and can fit two to three businesses into their commercial kitchen per hour, so there is lots of room to grow. LeCoy is passionate about food and even more so about supporting local entrepreneurs.
"There is no bigger way to support our local economy then supporting the West Michigan food industry," says LeCoy. "We have to be intentional about how we choose our food. I want Uptown Kitchen to be a hub for interaction around food for the community."

Chelsea Slocum is a resident of Grand Rapids. She works as an educator and enjoys learning about new and different things happening in the city. Follow her on twitter@cslocum.

Photography by Adam Bird

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