- By Lisa Weiskopf, Product Manager at Harmony Co-op, Illustrations by Rachel Rolseth -
In 2011 when Harmony Co-op moved from our small storefront kitty corner from Paul and Babe to our current—three times larger—location just down the street, we had the opportunity to contribute something really unique to the local food community here in Bemidji: our own state certified ‘shared-use’ commercial Kitchen.
Harmony member-owners and staff had been planning the 2011 expansion for several years, always with the idea that we would not only be expanding our retail space with the new location but also expanding our educational impact within the region through the creation of a “kitchen classroom”.
While Harmony had been providing a variety of educational classes throughout our 34-year history, we’d always done it in our Deli kitchen, which was smaller than most home kitchens! Imagine twenty or so people crowded around a four-burner stove learning how to make tofu lasagna from scratch! The need for a larger, separate Kitchen was obvious. And yet, not just for us, and this is where we realized the unique opportunity with which we were presented.
Through input from a variety of local foods partners in the region including the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council (HFSC), the Statewide Health Improvement Plan (SHIP), the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (NRSDP) as well as Harmony owners and shoppers, we learned that there was a need for a state-certified commercial Kitchen in our area. The Bemidji Fire Department needed a commercial kitchen in which to make batter for their annual Walleye Fish Fry. Several charter schools in the area needed a certified kitchen in which to make community meals for their annual school fundraisers. The 303 Food Truck needed a kitchen in which to produce their flavorful cilantro chicken burritos. What emerged was the concept of a ‘value-added’ kitchen; a state certified commercial kitchen that would serve Harmony’s need for expanded educational space and would serve the community’s need for a commercial food processing kitchen.
Local Success Stories
Bemidji Brewing Company:
In 2012, Harmony’s Commercial Kitchen opened its doors to our first local small business client: Bemidji Brewing Company. Astonishingly, after less than one year producing the most exquisite handcrafted beer in Northern Minnesota right in our very own Kitchen, Bemidji Brewing Company had enough of a following to warrant purchasing their own storefront several blocks away! The ability of Bemidji Brewing Company to build its brand before investing in its own commercial kitchen assisted their success, and is precisely the kind of local partnership Harmony envisioned when initiating this project.
In 2014, Jack Judkins decided he was tired of saying “no” every time someone asked him if he sold the jars of his father’s famous pickled asparagus recipe that he gave away as presents each year. After a couple of meetings with Harmony’s Grocery and Kitchen Managers to determine label requirements, product sizes, and costing structures, Jack began pickling asparagus sourced from several local farmers. Two months later, Harmony’s Grocery department had a new local product on its shelves: Grandpa Roy’s Dill Pickled Asparagus. One year after that, after having sold his entire initial product, Jack decided to add a couple more family recipes to the mix: Gen’s Dilly Mix, Kathy’s Crunchy Carrots, and Rae’s Dill Pickled Garlic. Stop in and see them for yourself!
Bemidji Community Food Shelf:
In 2015, after watching longtime Food Shelf Coordinator Jack Judkins successfully launch a local product line at Harmony, the folks at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf decided they too would try their hand at producing a value-added food product. Largely reliant on grant money for its operations, the BCFS was looking for a way to create a long-range sustainable funding source, and the creation of a value-added food product aligned with their mission. Since they had a large garden, they had a lot of options to choose from. After meeting with our Grocery and Kitchen managers to get the ball rolling, BCFS became the first non-profit organization awarded Harmony’s Community Kitchen Scholarship, in order to allow them a ‘head start’ on their first product launch: sauerkraut. It sold out quickly enough to warrant them producing another batch for the 2016 season. Be on the lookout!
In 2016, Cake Bemidji became the first small business recipient to be awarded Harmony’s Community Kitchen Scholarship. Specializing in custom made buttercream frosted layer cakes, Cake Bemidji fulfills a niche in the Bemidji area for handcrafted allergy-friendly event cakes. You can find Sarah Linda’s famous buttercream cakes at the Wild Hare Bistro and at Bemidji Brewing Company in Bemidji!