Bringing together the very best growing and artisanal food producers under one roof has proved revolutionary. Kerstin Kühn finds out how L.A. Prep has made this possible and profitable

Los Angeles is arguably the epicentre of the speciality food and beverage industry in the US now. There is a whole generation of enthusiastic foodies, who are baking, brewing, pickling, juicing and making handmade products in the city. After the state of California implemented the Cottage Food Act in 2013, allowing certain foods to be made in private homes and sold to the public, there has been a tidal wave of artisanal food makers flooding this market, which, countrywide, grew 21% between 2012 and 2014 to a value of $109.6bn (£71.2m), according to the Specialty Food Association.

Among Los Angeles’ budding community of artisanal food makers is Angelica Xavier, whose company Goodbites specialises in healthy, raw food snacks. She launched her business in 2013 under the Cottage Food Act but, so great was the success of her products, which are now on sale at Whole Foods as well as at other health stores and coffee shops across Los Angeles, she quickly outgrew the confines of her home kitchen.

“We moved into a shared kitchen space but that really wasn’t ideal,” Xavier recalls. Faced with the problem of being too big for a shared kitchen but too small to build her own production facility, she found the perfect middle ground when she came across L.A. Prep – a new and unique facility in east Los Angeles designed to help up and coming food entrepreneurs like her to push their business to the next level.

Located in a 56,000sq ft industrial warehouse building, L.A. Prep rents 54 commercial kitchen and prep kitchen spaces developed by specialised architectural and industrial kitchen design firms. Additionally the $20m (£13m) facility offers tenants shared access to walk-in refrigerators, freezers and dry-storage as well as a demonstration kitchen, a large co-working kitchen and packing space, three loading docks for deliveries, conference rooms and office space, changing facilities and around-the-clock security. It also gives its tenants access to its partner, Food Centricity, a business accelerator focused on food companies, as well as assistance and guidance on obtaining the necessary health and safety permits to operate within the space.

L.A. Prep is the brainchild of Civic Enterprise, a property development firm focused on revitalising emerging urban neighborhoods. Its founders, Mott Smith and Brian Albert, came up with the idea for the development inspired by the numerous stories of talented food producers in Los Angeles, whose businesses would so often come to a halt by virtue of the difficulties involved in opening a food production facility.

“It’s a really serious block that people would come up against and, ultimately, see their business end up failing because building your own space not only costs hundreds of thousands of dollars but can also take years to complete,” Albert explains. Add to that the complicated process of obtaining health and safety permits from LA City Council, whose health department is notoriously tough to please, and many businesses would simply throw in the towel.

“We went to the health department with this exact problem and they were surprisingly open to listening to us,” Albert explains. “The Cottage Food Act had just been passed by the state, and the department was at a point where it realised something needed to change to enable more local food businesses to flourish.”

Albert and his team spent the next 18 months writing new regulations for the LA county health department that would address this issue. “Previously, it was only possible to obtain a permit for one business for each individual space, which meant there was no way businesses could share a big facility like this and operate as an individual business,” Albert says. “We came up with new regs that make it possible for a shared commercial kitchen facility like L.A. Prep to exist.”

After another 18 months of finding, designing and developing the property, L.A. Prep opened its doors in April this year. Kitchens are equipped with gas stoves and stainless-steel counter-tops as well as two running water access points and electricity. “There was no model for this. What was both exciting but also really difficult was the fact that nobody has ever built anything like this and we had no idea who our tenants would be so we kind of just guessed,” Albert admits.

L.A. Prep kitchen spaces come in three sizes (small, medium and large). Xavier’s Goodbites for instance, which started in a prep kitchen, has already moved twice into larger premises (first a small, then a medium-sized kitchen) as the business has expanded. Eventually Xavier hopes to outgrow L.A. Prep altogether. “I see this very much as a stepping stone,” she says.

With monthly rent starting at $1,699 (£1,104) for a prep kitchen and at $2,350 (£1,528) for a small production kitchen, plus a monthly fee of $225 (£146) for a compulsory health and safety package and fees for storage, renting a space at L.A. Prep isn’t cheap, but certainly nowhere near as costly as a stand-alone facility.

Eclectic tenants

The collection of tenants at L.A. Prep is as colourful and eclectic as the city’s food scene, ranging from a pasta maker to a company specialising in ghee, a group producing bone broth and a meal delivery company called First Spoonful, which sells baby and children’s meals direct to consumers. Hipster coffee shop chain Blue Bottle produces its baked goods at L.A. Prep, meanwhile its anchor tenant, L.A. Kitchen, is a ground-breaking non-profit organisation that reclaims healthy, local food that would otherwise be discarded to provide healthy meals to households in need, while at the same time offers job training to unemployed men and women and ex-convicts.

Each tenant at L.A. Prep has his own kitchen space meaning that even though it is a shared facility there is no shared production space and therefore no shared food contact surfaces.

This is particularly important for the likes of First Spoonful, whose owner Jennifer Jewett says: “I’m cooking for babies and young children so the thought of sharing a kitchen space really scares me because of the potential exposure to and risk of contamination. I want to know exactly who has handled my food at all times and L.A. Prep gives me that security. If I hadn’t found this space, I really don’t think I would have gone ahead with this business.”

Six months after its launch, L.A. Prep is 85% let, with Albert and team already thinking about expansion. “Many of our clients have the potential to outgrow our facilities here,” Albert says. “Our ghee maker, Tin Star Foods, for instance, has grown so much since joining us it can barely keep up with demand and the business is already valued at $3m (£1.95m). The company will get to a point where it will be too big for us so we’re thinking along the lines of possibly building another facility like this but on an even larger scale to support even larger tenants.”

L.A. Prep has addressed an important problem for Los Angeles. By enabling food businesses, which would not be able to exist without this facility, it is not only helping the local food community to thrive, it is also boosting Los Angeles’ economy.