‘The coolest part is that I didn’t intend to do this,” swears Chris Crawford, standing in the commercial kitchen of her Wooden Spoon Catering Company in the Princeton North Shopping Center in Rocky Hill. But Crawford isn’t referring to catering, which she has been doing for more than 11 years. Instead, she’s talking about how the 1,475-square-foot professional catering kitchen she leases has become a de facto incubator for five other food businesses, all of which happen to be specialty baking operations owned and operated by women. The group has informally dubbed itself the Cooperative Kitchen.

Cohabiting with Wooden Spoon Catering are Simply Nic’s Specialty Foods, La Bella Cakery, Jen’s Cakes & Pastries, Ladybug Luggage Gourmet Cookies and Cakes, and the Moonlight Bakers. What with conflicting schedules, limited space, shared equipment, differing concepts of what constitutes cleanliness, and even having the occasional child underfoot — not to mention potential competition for the same customer base — the arrangement could be a recipe for discord and pandemonium. Instead, these women have not only found ways around these potential problems, they use them to their advantage. They focus instead on their commonalities and shared strengths.

“Everyone here is a mom who has come back to something she has always loved or wanted to do,” says Nicole Wilkins Bergman of Simply Nic’s. In fact, the seven women involved have 19 kids and step-kids among them. Chris Crawford, the group’s acknowledged den mother, says: “Even when I worked in the corporate world, it was always my way of thinking that it’s OK and fun to bring kids in to work, as long as they’re quiet.” Before establishing Wooden Spoon Catering, Crawford worked for 20 years as a banker/vice president for NatWest Bank in New York, the company that became Fleet and is now Bank of America.

“I think another important factor in why and how we all work together so well is that all of us come from the corporate world or from education, as opposed to restaurant backgrounds. There’s a certain way we’ve learned to deal with other people, a certain respectfulness. We’ve developed interpersonal skill levels as well as professional,” says Crawford. Nicole Bergman is a perfect example. From 2000 to 2004 she was chief of protocol for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Jen Carson of Jen’s Cakes & Pastries points out that they are all small businesses, with one or two employees at most. Crawford adds another critical component: that each of them has a supportive spouse who has spent time helping out in the kitchen: she refers to Bergman’s husband, Jeffrey, who works independently in finance, as “the best plumber I know with an MBA.” Her own husband, Joseph Arroyo, a customer service and sales rep for Johnson & Johnson, often moonlights as bartender for the parties Wooden Spoon caters. Recently, he came in every night over several weeks to help Crawford out when she was providing dinners to a group working late at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Crawford leases the space from Princeton North Realty. The other women pay rent to her based upon the number of days per month they use the facility. She took over the space in May, 2009, from Mason Irving, who had outfitted the kitchen about four years ago when his longtime catering business, Tillie’s Kitchen, went into partnership with Nassau Street Catering. (The partnership has since been dissolved; Irving continues to cater for longtime customers.) “It was raw, unused space for several years before I built it out,” Irving says. “I stocked it with new and pre-owned equipment, a lot of which I left in place when Chris and I worked out a firm agreement.” One of the improvements included a space specifically set apart and dedicated as a bakeshop.

That bakeshop turned out to be the key that gave the so-called Cooperative Kitchen its start. Last March when Irving was still the leaseholder, he received a call from Nicole Bergman of Princeton, who was looking to rent commercial kitchen space in which to bake sweet-and-savory artisanal shortbread bars for her fledgling business, Simply Nic’s Specialty Foods. Bergman says: “I had contacted Caron Wendell of Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen [830 State Road] asking for a lead, and she knew that Mason was looking for someone. He quoted me a really good price — and I needed one because I was just starting out. I started one day a week and paid by the day. That was the only way I could have swung it.”

Bergman currently uses the Wooden Spoon kitchen two to three days a week. Her shortbread, which has since expanded from two to five varieties, is sold in packages of two and six. It is available year-round at Cherry Grove Farm, the Whole Earth Center, Nassau Street Seafood, Merrick’s, and, fittingly, at Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen, as well as at three seasonal farmers markets and online.

Her shortbread is also on the lunch menu at One53 in Rocky Hill, the restaurant owned by Caron Wendell and her partner at Lucy’s, Joe McLaughlin. She’ll be among the exhibitors at Gourmates.com’s Taste of Temptation Culinary Showcase, Thurdsay, February 11, in New York City (www.gourmates.com), and her shortbread will be featured at Hopewell Valley Vineyards’ Wine & Chocolate Wine Trail Weekend, Saturday and Sunday, February 13 and 14 (hopewellvalleyvineyards.com), and the Slow Food Winter Market, Sunday, February 28, at Tre Piani restaurant, Princeton Forrestal Village.

In the year that Simply Nic’s has been in business Bergman’s output has increased from 200 cookies a week to 1,000 on average. During this past holiday season that number soared to 2,500. And because she wants to expand her distribution into supermarkets, she is meeting this month with consultants from the Rutgers Food Innovation Center to investigate methods for increasing the shelf life of her bars.

Even people familiar with the Princeton North Shopping Center, just south of the corner of routes 206 and 518, are surprised to learn that there’s a catering kitchen among the businesses there. That’s because the space, which is technically Suite 16A, is in the rear, behind Vespia Tire Center. “Since none of us has need for retail space it’s OK that we’re not out front,” Chris Crawford says, pointing out that there is plenty of parking for customers who come in for party consultations and cake tastings.

Irving Mason’s original design and layout of the kitchen allow it to function well for multiple businesses. He managed to preserve natural light with a row of windows along the long outside wall and installed a floor of high-grade epoxy, “the same that is used in food production facilities and pharmacies,” he says, because it is easy to keep clean and can even be sterilized. Among the furnishings — in addition to the baking room which has its own commercial mixer, prep area, and sinks — are a full size utility/dish washing room, large walk-in refrigerator, two-door freezer, commercial range, two convection ovens, and plenty of stainless steel prep tables. A closet-size room serves as Crawford’s office.

Posted on a wall near the front are each business’s commercial licenses and Crawford’s certificate for successfully completing the ServSafe Food Safety program, which stipulates that she must be on the premises as supervisor at all times. Hanging nearby is a 60-day planner with color-coded entries indicating who will be using the kitchen when. Each business carries its own insurance. Each of the five sub-tenants is assigned its own work station and storage space.

In looking back on how she came to cohabit the space with five other businesses, Crawford says, “I inherited Nic from Mason, but had she not been the kind of person she is, I would not have even considered sharing the space. Along the way I discovered that it’s fun having someone else in the kitchen with me.”

The next business to come aboard was Pamela Giggie-Accetta’s La Bella Cakery. Her custom, handmade wedding cakes are featured in the current (spring) issue of Contemporary Bride magazine. Giggie-Accetta, who lives in West Windsor, was an IT professional for 15 years before she changed careers in 2004 to enroll in the pastry arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, from which she graduated with top honors. She established La Bella Cakery in 2005 and worked out of several kitchens in the years that followed. “My business was great up until September of 2008,” she says, but when the economy tanked her client base — people who plan large weddings and special occasion parties two years in advance — collapsed.

Last spring, with customers returning, Giggie-Accetta listed herself on a website as looking for commercial kitchen space. “Chris found me there in June, and I am now settled in,” she says. She currently uses the kitchen twice a month, as well as for customer tastings and consultations. She expects a 20 percent growth in sales this year over 2009. “Wedding and birthday cakes are the bread and butter — or maybe I should say the buttercream — of my business,” she says, “although I would love to expand into wedding dessert buffets.”

It is ironic, she says, that when she married 15 years ago, she “could not have cared less” about her own wedding cake. Giggie-Accetta says her experience in the Cooperative Kitchen is “really incredible. I have worked in three or four kitchens, all of which went under. This one is different.”

“Pamela was the first one who told me about the kitchen,” says Jen Carson of Princeton, proprietor of Jen’s Cakes & Pastries, which got its start in 2007. “Then a neighbor of mine went to a cocktail party where she met Nic [Bergman] and told me, ‘you need to talk with her.’ Nic was so helpful and friendly and nice when we talked by phone. I’ve been here since October, two and a half days a week. Before, I had a rental space at my church, but I couldn’t grow my business there. Once I had this space, I went to every hotel around, trying to sell my lillipies.”

Lillipies? Like some of the other bakers, Jen’s offers wedding and special occasion cakes — fondant-covered, sculpted into custom shapes, etc. — as well as personalized cupcakes, cookies, and brownies, but lillipies are her most popular product.

These “little pies,” the size and shape of cupcakes, come in about a dozen varieties. “When my older son, who is now 11, was in kindergarten, he wanted to bring in apple pie for his school birthday celebration. I wondered, ‘can I make cupcake-size apple pies?’ I used my mother’s recipe, and it worked,” she says. Through her hotel sampling effort she now bakes for the Hyatt at Carnegie Center and Emily’s Cafe and Catering in Pennington. Recently Small World Coffee in Princeton began carrying lillipies. (For Valentine’s Day, she is offering Caliente Brownies, made with spicy cayenne and cinnamon —ingredients suspected to be aphrodisiacs.)

This former teacher whose husband, Ken Carson, is vice president of medicinal chemistry at Lexicon Pharmaceuticals at 350 Carter Road, is currently enrolled in the restaurant management program at the French Culinary Institute in New York, which includes coursework in business planning. Since classes are held on Saturdays, she has to turn down Saturday jobs for the interim. “I’ll be referring those customers to Pamela [of La Bella Cakery] and Annette,” she says, in the quintessential style of the Cooperative Kitchen. In fact, just about every woman there has referred customers to the others.

“Annette” is Annette Villaverde of Skillman, who established Ladybug Luggage Gourmet Cookies & Cakes last November. This “edible creator” as she calls herself, is quickly becoming known for her intricate, creative fondant work. “For me, baking has always been a way to express myself. I have four kids, ranging in age from 8 to 18, and through the years I have baked for their classes. I recognize how important teachers are, so I wanted a way to say ‘thank you for what you do for my kids.’” She often packages her creations in small bags that looked like luggage. “I envisioned them being delivered by a ladybug, the symbolic meaning of which is good luck,” she says.

When Villaverde, who at one time aspired to be an airplane pilot, realized she wanted to take her baking “to the next level” she began studying with leading practitioners in New York, including Collette Peters of Collette’s Cakes, Lauri De Tunno of Cake Alchemy, and Ruth Drennan of Ruth Drennan Cakes. One of her biggest coups has been to have a winning entry — hedgehog cupcakes — in Martha Stewart’s 2009 Cutest Cupcake contest.

Villaverde found the Wooden Spoon kitchen through Mason Irving. “Mason’s son is in the same grade as one of my sons. I knew about Mason’s business, so one day at school I introduced myself.” Irving connected her with Crawford.

Villaverde’s business is growing rapidly through word of mouth. Because she does strictly custom work, she books the kitchen as each order comes in. “But sometimes I come here just to hang out,” she admits.

The latest to enter the Cooperative Kitchen — and, Crawford says, the last, since the space is now full up — are Marilyn Besner and Piroska Toth of Princeton, otherwise known as the Moonlight Bakers. Their specialty is made-from-scratch strudel, both sweet and savory. Their inspiration was a trip they took to Toth’s native Hungary in 2007 to celebrate her 50th birthday. “I tasted wonderful strudel everywhere we went,” says Besner, “and we settled on strudel is because it makes for a good show — stretching the dough is like magic. And both of us like to cook, and we both like to work with our hands.”

Each is a creative artist in another way: Besner is a potter and Toth’s metier is felt-making. The pair met when two of their children became friends in kindergarten eight years ago. Toth’s husband, Zoltan Szabo, is a professor of mathematics at Princeton University; Besner’s husband, Fred Appel, is a senior editor for books on anthropology and religion at Princeton University Press.

As with Villaverde, it was also a school connection that led them to the Cooperative Kitchen. Toth heard about it from parents at the Princeton nursery school co-op where she works part time. According to Besner, she and Toth “just walked into the kitchen one day. We told Chris that we basically work at night, and she said that was perfect. We were in.”

It also helped that Nicole Bergman of Simply Nic’s had attended a strudel-making workshop that the Moonlight Bakers had conducted at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, where Besner works part time, and had put in a good word for them. “We’re at the very beginning with our business,” Besner acknowledges, “and the kitchen is a good place to collect information.” Beginning in January they now use the kitchen four half-days per month. Among their current commitments are a private party in Skillman and a Passover dessert tasting for a group at the Jewish Center in Princeton. They are also developing gluten-free and vegan desserts.

The Moonlight Bakers say they have been welcomed into the Cooperative Kitchen in typical style. Carson made room for their supplies underneath her workspace. They utilize Wooden Spoon Catering’s pots and pans. Crawford has commissioned one of their vegan cakes for a Wooden Spoon party.

During the holiday season just past, as many as four businesses were working in the kitchen simultaneously. “Even then no one seemed to mind,” says Carson. “We laughed about it, we helped each other out, and everyone got their work done” adds Crawford. “It’s always a rolling give and take, with IOU’s for things like lemons flying back and forth. And the rule is that everyone cleans up after themselves.”

These entrepreneurs profess that that the mere fact that they are female contributes most to the success of the arrangement. Even Mason Irving admits that the kitchen is a cleaner and therefore more pleasant place to work than in the past, a sentiment Crawford appreciates. “Mason has been in the restaurant business all his life,” she says. “He slams things around, for instance. It’s normal. There’s just a certain sense that the way guys use space is different. And their idea of clean is not mine! Here we are all girls. The way we treat each other is different. For example, Jen [Carson] just sent along two cookies with her rent check. I know this all sounds like utopia, but somehow friction just has not developed.”

She sums up the arrangement this way: “These women are smart, nice, and talented. It wasn’t in my business plan but it helps defray the overhead, and it’s rewarding in ways I did not expect. I’m comfortable with them; they are easy to like.” At which point Bergman points to the glass door of Suite 16A, back behind Vespia Tire, on which the names of all the businesses within are etched. “It may sound goofy,” she says, “but this hidden door is the door that opens opportunities.”

The Wooden Spoon Catering Company, Princeton North Shopping Center, 1225 State Road 206, Suite 16A, Princeton, 609-279-9219. www.thewoodenspoon.net. Proprietor: Chris Crawford.

Also, www.simplynics.com (Nicole Bergman); www.lillipies.com (Jen Carson, Jen’s Cakes & Pastries); www.labellacakery.com (Pamela Giggie-Accetta); www.ladybugluggage.com (Annette Villaverde); www.moonlightbaers.com (Marilyn Besner & Piroska Toth).

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