The Artisan Exchange: How To Launch Your Food Business

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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One of Chester County’s best-kept secrets is the Artisan Exchange. Hidden in a light industrial area in the town of West Chester is the brainchild of Frank Baldassarre. Frank realized the difficulty craft food and beverage makers had in securing a commercial kitchen space at an affordable price and wanted to ease that challenge. Frank and his partners Maryann Baldassarre and Joseph Stratton set about refurbishing the building that formerly housed mushroom houses and later a coffee roaster. When opened in 2013 the Artisan Exchange offered vendors either their very own commercial kitchen nook or a flexible space they could rent out as needed to test a new food product.

Inside the Artisan Exchange Saturday Market.

Four key areas of support

1. They offer affordable kitchen space and a common sanitization area, thus cutting the cost of needing a cleaning space in each kitchen unit. Business owners get to choose from individual proprietary manufacturing spaces from as little as 130 sq. Ft. up to 3,000 sq. Ft. depending on their needs and budget.

2. Access to a retail market. Each Saturday food business owners that rent kitchen space at Artisan Exchange can sell their goods at the Artisan Market. For a fee of $20-30, the vendors can set up a table and sell hot food, frozen food, or packaged products from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Saturday Artisan Market.

3. Production flexibility with commercial kitchen spaces that can be rented by the hour, day, or month using the online reservation system. Kitchen space is available 24-hours per day and seven days per week. This 24-hour availability helps budding entrepreneurs keep their day job and work during their off-hours in a commercial kitchen.

4. Sales and distribution services. This kind of sales help is valuable to a food company just starting out. Artisan Exchange helps new food companies sell to big companies like Aramark, Whole foods, and other outlets.

Startup food companies also receive much-needed support in navigating the paperwork jungle. Frank Baldassarre told me “In one case we had an entrepreneur come to us for commercial kitchen space and needed help getting setup. Within one week we got her in a suitable kitchen space, business insurance, and a license from the Pennsylvania Department Of Agriculture. By the next Saturday, she was selling her product at our Artisan Market.” Due to a history of helping more than 170 startups navigate the necessary paperwork, Frank and his team can expedite this challenging process.

Help with getting products out the door

Each vendor has access to shipping, receiving, and delivery facilities. With help from the management, vendors will need such shipping space as many have been fortunate enough to sell to several outlets in the greater Philadelphia area and beyond. Over 170 owners have started at Artisan Exchange, and several have had their products sold in local Whole Foods stores.

Sallay at Sallamin Foods International

Another benefit of producing food products in this environment is the owners tend to learn from each other. An exchange of information covering packaging methods, health regulations, paperwork, and more, are freely discussed to the good of all. To manufacture and distribute a food product is a mind-boggling endeavor and these mom-and-pop startups need all the help they can get.  Once the food business owners get up and running they can store their products in their own freezers, refrigerators, or rolling security cage. When put on rollers, the refrigerators and freezers are pushed into the vendor’s kitchen area for ease of production. If the cost of such refrigeration and storage facilities is too much in the beginning, vendors can use community refrigeration and storage to save on costs.

The 900 sq. ft. community commercial kitchen is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week. After signing on with Artisan Exchange, the vendors using the community commercial kitchen go online and reserve the time slot needed. This 24-hour accessibility offers startups a chance to try their hand at making and selling food products and hold down their day job. Once they get traction in the marketplace, they can rent bigger kitchen space on a month-to-month basis or longer if needed.

Kitchen equipment for food production is expensive, and most startups can’t afford such a luxury. The Artisan Exchange provides cooking and cleanup equipment to help out. The entrepreneurs have access to a 20-quart mixer, six burner stove, a convection oven, and a tilt skillet. For cleanup, they have the use of an automatic dishwasher, 3-bay sink, hand washing station, and a mop sink. The commercial kitchen supplies tables, shelves, food prep sink table, freezers, refrigeration, and warming cabinet.

Brenda of BrendAmore Italian Catering at the Saturday Market

Both the food business owners and the public flock to the Saturday market throughout the year. Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this market is sheltered from the elements inside the Artisan Exchange. Customers find up to 20 or more vendors each Saturday. What were once just food products for sale has expanded to include candles, tea, and bath products. Come hungry as many of the vendors serve delicious foods to sample or have for lunch on the spot.

The Artisan Exchange is a prototype for what every state should have to benefit food product entrepreneurs. Those living in or visiting the Philadelphia area are lucky to have such a market nearby. Food entrepreneurs have come from neighboring states of Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland to get a jump start. Even if you live far away consider this a great place to launch your dream of a successful food product business. Or start your own version of an artisan’s exchange where you live. This model works!

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska Magazine, Metropolis Japan Magazine, Edible Delmarva Magazine, North West Travel and Life Magazine, and Mother Earth News. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, MD area with his wife, dog and cats.

Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites like: GoNomad.comTrip101.comMotherEarthNews.comAdventuresstraveler.comand several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas.

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