Neelima Gogumalla is not in the business of preparing food, but she is in the business of preparing food makers for market. Her Creative Chef Kitchens in Derry has been an incubator for scores of local food businesses.
“I have no background in food or restaurants; I love the entrepreneurial spirit,” she said recently. “And I have a background in that.”
In the past, Gogumalla worked in tech-related incubation business and is a serial entrepreneur with experience managing a biodegradable hemp product line called NaraStyle. She also owned and operated an Internet store with a worldwide customer base and is the founder of Vivid Confections, a custom, photo-printed marshmallow business housed in her own industrial kitchen.
Creative Chef Kitchens provides a collaborative space for foodies and food business to incubate and grow their culinary ideas. Gogumalla helps customers start a business, find ingredients, packaging, labels and sales outlets, streamline their production and identify strategies for growth.
“I feed off the energy, passion, risk and optimism my customers bring with them every day and dedicate to their companies,” said Gogumalla.
While Gogumalla spoke in her office in the foyer of the kitchen, Kasia Lojko of Hooksett and Sonia Farris of Goffstown were in the midst of a 12-hour cooking marathon making meals for their company, All Real Meal, a farm-to-table delivery service. The earthy scent of slow-cooking onions filled the building as the partners sang the praises of Creative Chef Kitchens and how it has allowed them to grow their small business.
The commercial kitchen space meets local and state health code requirements for food storage, processing, production and packaging and is equipped with cooking and food processing stations for bakers, caterers, cake decorators, canners, commercial (retailers and wholesalers) food processors, home chefs, restaurant entrepreneurs, food photographers and videographers, cooking instructors and other food enthusiasts.
“A typical customer is someone who has a home-based business and is at the point where they’re large enough to move of out their home, but small enough where they can’t yet,” Gogumalla explained.
The kitchen is situated in the Hannaford Plaza in Derry, where there was once a Thai restaurant. “The space is just perfect,” she said. “There’s plenty of parking and it’s near the highway.”
In addition to All Real Meal, the kitchen has served as a production home for Alberto’s Homemade Pasta Sauce, Calcutta Curry, the Puerto Rican rice dishes of El Camino Foods and Messy Mike’s Barbecue, to name a few. Gogumalla said the kitchen was particularly hectic last September during the Deerfield Fair when several entrepreneurs were racing back and forth to the fairgrounds as they prepared and sold their foods.
The local food movement has inspired many home cooks to take their products to market. If you always dreamed about turning Grandma’s pickle relish recipe or Uncle Eddie’s barbecue sauce into a business, Creative Chef might be the place for you. During its four years of operation it has served as a launch pad for more than 80 food-related businesses and Gogumalla has assisted as they created a prototype, evaluated demand, identified a market and navigated the intricacies of financing and pricing. Many of those businesses involved ethnic food products.
Gogumalla suggests her customers first try selling their foods at farmers’ markets.
“They are the perfect place to get feedback,” she said. She sends her clients to the markets with questionnaires for customers and for potential customers.
She said Derry is the perfect location for this type of business, with easy access to Boston and Massachusetts, but also having a close relationship to many rural areas and farmers’ markets.
Seeing these bourgeoning businesses take root and grow is totally gratifying, said Gogumalla.
“I like startups,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of the clients here are startups or first-year businesses. I love getting them going.”
Of course there are occupational hazards.
“My customers are always dropping off food for me and it’s delicious. I put on 12 and a half pounds the first year I opened.”
All Real Meal use Creative Chef Kitchens to prepare salads in a jar. Photo by Stacy Milbouer.