| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


RapidChat: Kelly LeCoy

For this week’s RapidChat, Molly Crist and Kelly LeCoy, friends and food-entrepreneurs, threw a blanket down in Wilcox Park to chat it up and reflect on Kelly’s experience starting, operating, and recently selling (as of last week) Uptown Kitchen. Kelly got her start in entrepreneurship as a senior at Calvin College with a business plan too good to ignore. Within a year of graduating, she was operating Uptown Kitchen, a shared-use incubator kitchen in Eastown. Kelly's enthusiasm for community, creative vision, and personal drive are defining characteristics that indicate we should all keep an eye out for her next community-enhancing thing. In the meantime, read on as Kelly looks back at the challenges and successes of business ownership, and glances ahead at what might be in store for Uptown Kitchen and for her career.  
Kelly LeCoy

For this week’s RapidChat, Molly Crist and Kelly LeCoy, friends and food-entrepreneurs, threw a blanket down in Wilcox Park to chat it up and reflect on Kelly’s experience starting, operating, and recently selling (as of last week) Uptown Kitchen, a shared-use incubator kitchen in Eastown. She’s moving on in life, leaving the keys with a pair of local bagel geniuses, and pursuing the next opportunity. Read on as Kelly talks about her work growing the local food culture, engaging with her beloved business districts, and learning hard lessons.
Rapid Growth: Word on the street is that Uptown Kitchen has new owners.

Kelly LeCoy: Yes, that is a true story. On July 1st, Grand Rapids Bagel Bakery (GR Bagel) became the official owners of Uptown Kitchen. GR Bagel has been a tenant at Uptown Kitchen for the past year and a half, so when the opportunity came up, it seemed like a perfect fit. Handing over the keys was a bittersweet experience, but while I enjoyed my work at Uptown Kitchen, I was ready for something new. I’m sure it will be months still until it’s not the first thing I think about in the morning.

It feels like the ultimate form of business incubation. It started with GR Bagel being new Grand Rapids residents who wanted to start this bagel business. They did and it took off and I think they’ve been trying to keep up with it for the past year and a half.
GR Bagel will continue operating the space as a shared-use kitchen and also continue expanding their business out of it. Many of the tenants who got started at Uptown Kitchen are staying and will continue to grow their businesses there. GR Bagel is hoping to also have retail up and running in the fall, where you can go in and purchase bagels.

RG: So what was it like coming out of college and running a small business with so many stakeholders – from tenants, to event rental clients, to investors?

KL: I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into. I often tell people it snowballed and I really can’t think of a better way to say it. But I did it and I’m glad I did it in Grand Rapids because, as everyone will tell you, Grand Rapids is a great place to start something. People care and people listen and people try to connect you and support you. I found that from the 5x5 competition when Uptown Kitchen first became a public idea, to Varnum’s springboard program that offered free legal services, to various partnerships like the Grand Rapids Public Library, who would come in and do classes in the space. We’ve had 30 businesses at one point or another come through the space and start something.

RG: When you started Uptown Kitchen, you wanted to positively impact the food community. Do you feel like you accomplished that?

KL: I think so! One of my favorite moments was last summer... I woke up on a Saturday, biked over to Fulton Street Farmers Market, walked into the shed, and there were several of my tenants down the line: Art with Art’s Hot Salsa, Jason with Marshmallogy, Nancy with Cookie and Hostas

That was a really cool experience, to realize the fact that Uptown Kitchen exists allowed them to be there and added so much vibrancy to the food culture and economy in Grand Rapids.

In general over the past couple years, the conversation about local food and food entrepreneurs and artisan food production has grown. It’s been really interesting to be an active participant in that conversation.

RG: While operating Uptown Kitchen, what did you find you were good at?

KL: Connecting with people. My favorite part was having someone come in with a concept, already started or ground level, and then being able to hand them over a whole packet of resources and help them get going.

The first couple months was a huge learning curve for me, having to gather all of that knowledge. Over time, as I’d built my own network and Uptown Kitchen had become more established, being able to connect a business and get them up and running was where a lot of the value from Uptown Kitchen came from. We had a really great family and community, too, within the kitchen. I think that’s what I loved the most, and hopefully it is also how I added value.

RG: Well I have to ask, what were you bad at?

KL: I don’t think I had any idea how hard it would be to be responsible for a commercial kitchen of that size and an event space. The sink would break or I’d get a call at two in the morning because the stove wasn’t turning on. I learned how to fix some of my plumbing. I learned how to check my stove and make sure all the pilots were on. I learned where all the different valves and gaskets were for things I could try… The hardest part was maintaining the space.

RG: Tell me about a few of your achievements during your Uptown Kitchen tenure?

KL: Being awarded Grand Rapids Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce during the 2013 EPIC awards was an honor. Delivering a Wheelhouse Talk as part of GVSU’s Hauenstein Center’s series of talks by community leaders was also a really cool experience.

Transitioning from a recent college grad with a limited network to a 22-year-old business owner grappling with what that meant, to three years later feeling pretty established in the community, has been terrific. I became really involved in Eastown and Uptown business districts, and getting to know the business leaders that are creating those communities has been a privilege.
RG: So what will you do next with all those notches on your belt?

KL: I wish I had a good answer for that. I’m excited for the change and for something new. I’m excited to see Uptown Kitchen continue and to watch each food business grow.

I’m not positive what I’m doing next. I’m passionate about local economies, food entrepreneurship, and startups in general. I know I want to build my career and have an impact in that.

RG: Here in Grand Rapids?

KL: For now. I’d love to go to graduate school. I’m looking into programs and that might be out of state. Grand Rapids is my hometown and I love this place so even if I might leave for a season, I will be back.

RG: Tell me about some projects you are currently working on – especially related to entrepreneurship and startups.

KL: I have a couple really fun projects I’m working on right now.

One is with Acorn Studios, a new event space. Acorn is this really awesome event space on Fulton Street owned by Laura Goble, a food stylist. So we are working with them right now to launch this space by the end of the month and working on branding, messaging, how they play a role in not just food but a really cool culture of entrepreneurs and people doing interesting things in Grand Rapids.

I’m also working with Art of the Table on marketing initiatives and with Bradley Productions on special projects.

I really like Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” The concept is the golden circle, leading with why. That’s something I worked on with Bradley Productions… thinking through what the why is behind what they’re doing and how that comes through in communications. Do people get excited about the story?

That’s what I wanted with Uptown Kitchen. I wanted to tell the story and have other people tell it for me because it was cool or mattered to them, not because it was my thing. I want the future projects and businesses I launch or work on to be like that too… embodying and communicating interesting stories that people want to tell.

RG: What are you going to do with all your new free time?

KL: I don’t think I know what free time is! I think I’ve done a good job keeping myself sane… well… ehh…. I think most of the time I’ve done an ok job keeping myself sane the past couple years! I love to run, practice yoga, cook, spend time with people over my table and on my porch and I will continue that. I don’t doubt I will find plenty of ways to keep myself busy.

RG: Who or what in this community inspires you?

KL: I’m constantly inspired by our small business owners and entrepreneurs. Walking into the Cakabakery and talking to Jason and Peter – who are so passionate about what they do. Or when I arrive at Rowster and Stephen asks if I want an Americano because he knows that’s my drink… Or going into Rebel Reclaimed for the most unique gifts and chatting with Chip and Dann. These experiences give me such a sense of place.

I also have a team of people who keep me going… family and friends, mentors from my alma mater Calvin College, a group of wonderful women I get together with on a monthly basis who all shed light and offer different opinions and insight. And the author of this article who reached out to me on LinkedIn in 2011 and became a fast friend.

RG: So looking back at Uptown Kitchen, it was owned and managed by you for two and a half years but an active project for three. You’ve had a lot of success but say there have been a lot of hard lessons, too. And now you’re moving on. Some entrepreneurs might be discouraged, what do you think about that?

KL: I would definitely say… keep going! I fully intend to start something again. I don’t think I will be able to stay away for long. I have a ton to learn and am excited to have the opportunity to do so. Going through a process like this teaches you a lot. I’ve learned so much and like I said, I still have a lot to learn.

Maybe the best piece of advice someone ever gave me is to ask “What’s the worst case scenario?” Back when I was starting the kitchen the answer was, well if it doesn’t work, I have to figure something else out. But it worked and it was really great and really hard and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I would tell new entrepreneurs to find a community of support and people who have been there or know the industry they’re going into, who can give advice, and help them think from a different perspective about what they’re doing… and then just jump off the cliff.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts