Nimbus Kitchen has fostered a women-owned, community-minded commissary.
Finding adequate kitchen space is one of many prerequisites to starting a food business. Yet entrepreneur Camilla Opperman struggled to find the right spot when she was preparing to start her own brand.
“In the process of trying to find licensed commercial kitchen space in which I could launch my concept, I was pretty disappointed by what was available to me. I looked into renting my own restaurant—that’s obviously really expensive,” Opperman says. “At the time, there were no ghost kitchen operators in New York City. The ones I did speak to who were operating out of L.A. were still charging pretty high rents. That whole time my wheels were turning. I realized this was a pain point that everyone in the industry was facing.”
In April 2019, after about four months of looking for a suitable space, Opperman decided to stop the search and instead build her own ideal kitchen from the ground up. That summer she teamed up with marketing professional Samantha Slager, and the two spent the rest of the year fundraising and touring potential spaces. They eventually landed on a facility in the Lower East Side and signed a lease. After a nearly two-year process, Nimbus Kitchen opened its doors in January.
The finished 4,200-square-foot facility features four dedicated ghost kitchens and three production kitchens, which operators can rent by the hour. Unlike most shared kitchens, Nimbus Kitchen also boasts a consumer-facing space with a studio kitchen and event area. Opperman and Slager conceptualized this area while they were developing Nimbus, as they wanted a space where brands could interact with customers and other commissary members.
“When we’re not doing formal events, this space is open to our members. We come and have lunch together, whether that’s Roberta’s Pizza and all of their chefs, the Nimbus team, or the person who is currently in our back-of-house making almond butter cups,” Opperman says. “It’s a place where everyone could gather and exchange ideas. That’s really what is at the core of hospitality: interacting with one another. And that’s something that, frankly, most kitchens overlook.”
Nimbus operators can also use the consumer-facing space for other needs, from brand photography to pop-up panels. Though most in-person uses have been on pause due to the pandemic, the kitchen has moved some events, like cooking demonstrations, online.
After the pandemic, Nimbus Kitchen plans to grow beyond its four walls. The cofounders envision having a national footprint, with 5–10 kitchens operating in every major metropolitan area. Opperman and Slager are gearing up for post-pandemic growth, especially in the catering realm, as Slager predicts corporations will use catering as a way to incentivize employees to come back to the office.
Nimbus Kitchen is already charging forward with its expansion plans; two more New York area facilities are slated for 2021, with the goal of 10 in the city by 2025. It may sound like a lot, but Slager says this growth model is in step with the uptick in demand for alternative kitchen spaces.
“As restaurants open back up again, there’s going to be even more of a need for these off-premises spaces. Right now, if you’re a restaurant operator, you have to have the kitchen capacity to support the delivery side of things,” Slager says. “I think that’s going to continue to rise. Off-premises ghost kitchens are going to continue to expand and need to be understood by the community, especially the end consumer.”
To help aspiring entrepreneurs through this tumultuous pandemic era, Nimbus Kitchen plans to keep overhead costs low so it can cater to a larger pool of potential members.
Slager says many traditional restaurants have struggled to adapt to the times, but Nimbus could become part of the reset process. The kitchen has already partnered with local favorites like Roberta’s Pizza to surpass sales expectations, but lesser-known brands are also coming onboard.
One such small brand, Jess Pudd’in, which specializes in cakes, pudding, and other desserts, plans to take full advantage of Nimbus Kitchen. CEO Jessica McDonald says she wants to use the consumer-facing area for photo shoots and taste tests, particularly for upcoming promotions. Beyond the kitchen facilities and resources, McDonald says there’s a special value in working with Opperman and Slager.
“I’ve used a lot of commissary kitchens before, and most times it’s always a man operating the thing,” McDonald says. “For women to actually own this kitchen and operate this kitchen, that just makes me so happy. Because as a woman, it’s very challenging, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship.”
Before coming to Nimbus Kitchen, McDonald had a long track record of selling her goods in retail spaces. Jess Pudd’in products were available for purchase at bodegas, pop-up carts, and other commissaries. However, some of these experiences were turbulent. One commissary went bankrupt and closed without telling her.
Because of the pandemic, bankruptcy and abrupt shutdowns are far too common. The closure of more than 110,000 restaurants since March 2020 (per the National Restaurant Association) has highlighted the razor-thin margins of a storefront location. It’s one of many reasons why McDonald thinks all types of businesses can benefit from a shared kitchen, particularly in major cities where real estate costs pose a high barrier for entry among up-and-coming entrepreneurs like her.
“Let’s be realistic. We live in New York City. A storefront is a lot of money to rent, let alone purchase a property,” McDonald says. “[Commissary kitchens] are a way to test the market before you make that really, really big investment. These commissary kitchens are necessary.”