Garden State Kitchen: Where NJ Food Entrepreneurs’ Dreams Come True

At Garden State Kitchen: Rob Sommo, Chef Jesse Jones, Kris Ohleth

Garden State Kitchen, a brand-new commercial kitchen, incubator and co-working space, gives food entrepreneurs a place to cook – and dream – in the Valley Arts District of Orange.

“My dream is to help my clients make their dreams come true,” said founder and owner Kris Ohleth.

After five years of planning and renovation, the commercial kitchen is open and ready to rent by the hour, day, week or more. The catering, baking and prep areas boast state-of-the-art kitchen equipment — but the space offers much more than a place to cook. In the front of the former iron works factory, there’s a flexible event space that fills with warm natural light during the day. Above the dry storage, there’s a small lofted co-working space where entrepreneurs can catch up on paperwork, or just sit with a coffee for a minute.

There are also intangible amenities at Garden State Kitchen. Ohleth describes her business as an ecosystem full of possibilities. She’s starting a mentorship program and already offers classes that provide the skills small food business owners need to succeed. “When you’re an entrepreneur you’re walking a tightrope, and we want to be the security net.”

There’s a monthly ServSafe food handler’s course on the calendar and an evening session that demystifies selling at farmers markets. Syria Supper Club is set for February 24, with more to come.

Garden State Kitchen

On January 26, an in-depth session called The Formula @ Garden State Kitchen kicks off. Tailored to growing food businesses, classes feature industry experts who share tips and advice on how to connect with customers and get products into the market and how to scale recipes for commercial production. The first two sessions help entrepreneurs articulate their mission and understand how to profit with purpose while the last one covers budgeting and how to access capital. “I can’t wait to see one of our makers’ products for sale at a farmer’s market or on the shelf at Whole Foods.” Ohleth said.

Many moments led up to this new venture, and Ohleth has learned from all of them. “I’ve had about every support role there is when it comes to food” including prepping in pastry kitchens at Ester’s Treats and Karen’s Cookies and working the Hoboken Farms’ juice bar.

All these experiences showed her first-hand what it takes to run a small food business. In addition, she worked at the Summit Farmers Market for eight years and was eventually tapped to be market manager. Today, she has a full-time career in sustainable wind energy and a side hustle as a popular spin instructor that she loves too much to give up. “People have to sign up early – I have a killer playlist,” she said.

Chef Flo at Garden State Kitchen

Her energy and enthusiasm allow her to easily pivot between Garden State Kitchen and the rest of her work. She’s busy, but the independence is worth it. “I worked so hard for other people my whole life to make other people money,” Ohleth said. “I love being in charge of my own business and my own destiny. Even when it’s scary, it’s thrilling. I know this is the thing I’m supposed to be doing.”

As small business owners, Ohleth’s clients at Garden State Kitchen share her entrepreneurial spirit. On a recent Thursday, Chef Flo of Eemas Cuisine prepped bites of vegan tempeh katsu for a pop-up event at Liberty Science Center. He was one of the first to rent space in the kitchen and make his signature dishes that blend Hawaiian and Filipino cuisines. He said he’s happy with the kitchen and thinks educational workshops are a good idea. “There’s no way to Google ‘how do I start a food vending business,” Chef Flo said. “I know, because I tried.”

After years of catering and selling at pop-ups, he’s able to give advice to newcomers and likes to share his knowledge. He’s also expanding his business. With plans to partner with a pastry chef and develop a sweets menu, he said he plans to spend even more time at Garden State Kitchen.

Garden State Kitchen

Though she’s still in start-up mode and fine-tuning her business model, Ohleth is already looking to the future. She envisions opening a second location dedicated to gluten-free processes or other specialty certifications. She also sees opening kitchen spaces that entrepreneurs can rent exclusively as an interim step between Garden State Kitchen and their own shop. She’s seen a few locations, but remains uncommitted. “Like with this space in Orange, I’ll know it when I see it,” she said.

Garden State Kitchen, 406 Tompkins Street, Orange, NJ, 201-850-3690

Stacy Basko is a freelance writer, recipe developer and marketing consultant in Maplewood. She’s currently working with Garden State Kitchen and organized The Formula, the series of food entrepreneur workshops that kicks off 1/26.