A narrow commercial kitchen efficiently lined with tables and shelves opens into a fork in the road. To its left, three more small kitchens feed into an open area containing a row of cooking surfaces. Veering to the right, a narrow hallway flanked by sinks leads you past three more kitchens and an alcove that is filled—at the moment—with shoulder-high racks of freshly cooked bacon. People in masks, hats, and aprons slide past one another, some stopping to chat, others nodding a silent hello. Each is on a mission.
In the maze of kitchens-for-rent, food is a landmark. And people. “That guy, his pies are really good. Here, let’s see if he has a minute,” suggests Rocky Mountain Commissary owner Scott Sucaet as he steers us out of traffic and into a kitchen. We find John Hinman, who drops an interesting fact: the pie business picks up dramatically after Tax Day. He looks back over the last year and mentions his role with CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness). It becomes clear that not only have people in the food industry worked hard through the pandemic, they’ve worked hard taking care of one another.
Commissary operations like this are an interesting mix of small start-ups that add up to a bustling community of give-and-take. Food trucks, caterers, meal delivery companies. And businesses like Hinman Pie or MOR Kombucha, whose products can be ordered online or found at places in the neighborhood like Leevers Locavore, Vital Root, or Huckleberry Coffee.
Members—also called clients or tenants—rent commercial kitchen space by the day or hour and have access to specialty equipment that would otherwise be difficult to purchase: the $6,000 kettle, for example. They can rent space on shelves and in refrigerators and freezers. And then there’s the large room-sized canning apparatus that MOR Kombucha only needs for a few days. A large door at their end of the commissary opens up for the machine to roll in, do its work for MOR, then head back to a rental company.
For Laura Madrid, co-founder at Lala’s Bakery, the large commercial mixer came as a relief when they moved their start-up operation to the commissary in November. Larger batches have allowed them to grow, supplying the next generation of Denverites with steady access to the deliciously fruit-topped Spring Fling cake. Many worried the confection would go away when longtime owners of the Market on Larimer Square announced the permanent closure of their café last April. Madrid and co-founder Vivian Villagrana were bakers at the Market and felt the full weight of the longstanding Denver institution shutting its doors. “We were heartbroken,” Madrid recalls. But knowing they play a role in families continuing a decades-long tradition—paired with a recent record-breaking weekend–makes all the work worth it. What one day looked like a pipe dream now inspires young women to pursue their own goals.
Sucaet points into another kitchen, “Right there: Cibo Meals. Healthy vegetarian entrees served in Mason jars. Environmentally-friendly.” Emily Green, Cibo founder, has worked out of Rocky Mountain Commissary for over three years. She might be one of their longest-term clients. “People are pretty heads-down here but will always take a minute to taste something or lend a hand.” If she needs one more can of tomatoes or a little apple cider vinegar, she knows someone will pitch in. And in Green’s business, she can include a treat from one of the other businesses—a pierogi, an empanada or a piece of baklava—along with her fresh-to-jar Mason jar meals.
We’re on the move again, past Hinman Pie, Lala’s Bakery and Cibo Meals, headed to the far end of the building. Sucaet pauses, pointing, “That’s a school lunch program.” Around the next corner, “Over here, vegan meal delivery.” Three staff from YA·YE (You Are What You Eat) chime hello as they chop their way through mounds of brussels sprouts and mushrooms. YA·YE is one of many businesses within these walls that shifted gears as the pandemic hit. They had opened a brick and mortar location in RiNo’s Zeppelin Station but are now serving up their plant-based meals by home delivery.
Across town, Denver Commissary owner-operator Brad Feely shines a light on what the last year has meant for the commissary food world. He lost all of his catering clients and about a third of his food trucks. The number of meal delivery companies grew, but his overall business dropped by 70%. What’s the pulse these days? “Hesitant, but optimistic. A few more food trucks are getting back up and running, and some caterers.” North Denver knows several businesses that lean on Denver Commissary: Crock Spot, Crescent City Connection, Meatball, and the latest: Cupbop Korean BBQ.
For these and other small businesses, the year required an unparalleled intensity: creative marketing and continual adjustments to all aspects of their business. For Barrett & Pratt Provisions, whose little teal food truck hit the roads in February 2020, the effort has paid off. “We opened 3 weeks before lockdown last year and have powered through every curveball COVID has thrown our way,” says Kelley Barrett, owner operator. Barrett met fellow owner operator Robert Dominy while they worked as chefs in an Irish pub. Of the commissary scene, Barrett recalls, “When we first moved in, we were adopted by a few of the senior trucks and now we are able to do the same for newcomers.”
From the outside, Rocky Mountain Commissary’s sprawling one-story building blends into similarly unremarkable businesses along a pot-holed road through one of Arvada’s light industrial areas. On the inside, though, as you wind your way through its maze of kitchens, there’s an aroma like none other. It smells like dreams churning their way into reality. It sounds like ideas growing into plans. And it feels like a community. “You’re never alone here,” says Lala’s Laura Madrid.
We’ve made our way back to where we started. Sucaet opens one last door. He peeks in and waves to a group of women assembled around large steaming pots. He waxes briefly about the hard-working team at Pierogis Factory, then closes the door and smiles, “We’re all just small businesses grinding.”