A passion for food is deeply embedded in Anuradha Bhalla’s DNA. Growing up in Delhi, she would follow her grandfather around the hectic kitchens of his famed Moti Mahal restaurant, tasting the spices he used to invent dishes such as tandoori chicken.
Emigrating to Massachusetts four years ago, she spent months testing out curry recipes on her family as she tried to capture the complex flavors of her grandfather’s closely guarded recipes and convert them into ready-made sauces.
Joining Boston’s CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK) — an incubator for food entrepreneurs — proved a vital catalyst. Working with her husband Tarun, the Bhallas used CWK’s commercial kitchen to develop their fresh-tasting curries and launch their company, Meal Mantra.
“Food’s always been my passion, seeing my grandfather and growing up in that family, learning about all those aromas,” says Anuradha Bhalla, who previously ran a pharmaceutical company in India with her husband.
“It took me almost a year to figure out what are the right amounts of spices I needed to make that huge quantity, but everything fell into line and we figured out how to do this.”
Now Meal Mantra produces around 6,000 jars a month of its sauces including a tikka masala made from the original Moti Mahal recipe. They buy ingredients such as ginger, onions, and garlic from local suppliers.
It’s been a hard slog to build the business, but now its curries are exported to Japan and will soon be sold in the Whole Foods chain. The couple is also exploring ways to supply their sauces to other buyers, such as local hospitals.
CWK is a vital springboard for start-ups such as Meal Mantra that cannot afford commercial kitchen space or need help navigating complex regulations to turn their creative culinary ideas into businesses.
“Food can be very democratic. It’s also really, really hard. The margins are terrible; it’s a tough industry,” says Jen Faigel, who co-founded CommonWealth Kitchen in 2009. “If you’re a business owner that does not have friends and family with money, your ability to get financing and scale your company, no matter how great, is really hard.”
On a mission to build a “new food economy,” CWK selects a diverse mix of entrepreneurs to use its 12,000-square-foot facility in south Boston. People of color own around 80% of the businesses, and 70% are women-owned.
FreshZen, which makes ginger scallion sauce using a generations-old Chinese family recipe, is one of the 45 companies currently at CWK. Hapi African Gourmet, owned by a Cameroonian former refugee, produces a creamy peanut sauce.
It’s a mammoth logistical challenge to stagger kitchen time among the producers making sauces, baked goods, or drinks, as well as food truck owners who use CWK to prepare tacos or Korean rice bowls.
“Our shared kitchen is like a gym membership for food companies,” says Faigel, explaining how the pandemic has dealt a brutal blow to many.
Start-ups looking to join CWK undergo a stringent selection process. Entrepreneurs are carefully vetted to see if they have a clear business concept, tenacity, and the ability to work with others.
CommonWealth Kitchen’s professional chefs are on hand to fine-tune recipes while staff help start-ups set up businesses and obtain the permits they need. Down the line, they try to help forge relationships with retailers and snare high-volume deals with hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
Success stories abound. An immigrant Jamaican chef, who snagged a popular food truck spot thanks to CWK, has now opened two restaurants. And a hot sauce start-up recently won a Boston Red Sox contract, says Faigel.
“Most people are coming in here because they want to feed people, not because they just got their MBA, mostly they didn’t even come from culinary school,” says Faigel. “Our work is really being the connector, the concierge, the connective tissue.”
She estimates the 65 companies that have “graduated” from CWK have created around 600 jobs and generate close to $60 million a year in revenue.
For companies like Meal Mantra that are struggling to find affordable manufacturers to help scale up production, CWK’s own 20-plus kitchen staff are helping by producing large batches of curry sauces.
“I cannot put into words how essential it is to have an opportunity like CommonWealth where you can go out, scale up, and try out your ideas without sinking in a lot of money,” says Tarun Bhalla, who is also a medical doctor.
Besides helping its members, CWK makes and sells its own falafel and eggplant meatballs to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals.
Soon, CWK hopes to sell packaged goods in Brigham’s cafeteria, including sauces from Meal Mantra, plant-based cookies from Off Our Rocker, and tea from the Boston Chai Party.
CWK is part of the Northeast Food Collective convened by Health Care Without Harm to make it easier for institutions to purchase local food year‐round. Founding members of the collective include two other nonprofit operations that are also primed for growth: Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center and The Center for an Agricultural Economy’s social enterprise, Just Cut. Much like CWK, the other processors have been supporting the regional food and farm community for more than a decade.
Giving ‘ugly’ produce a second chance
Faigel says CWK’s range of products may also include jars of the marinara and pesto sauces the kitchen blends using excess produce from local farms that would otherwise go to waste.
For farms such as Farmer Dave’s, CWK’s program is a chance to use tons of its second-grade produce, says Jane Bowie, who runs the 100-acre farm north of Boston with her husband Dave.
“We wanted to add to our own value-added line but also to really start to eliminate a lot of our waste, to turn our B-grade into something that had a little bit more longevity than fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Bowie.
Farmer Dave’s now sells the sauces at its store or distributes them to subscription customers when extreme weather impacts some of the 150 fruit and vegetables varieties it grows.
Hospitals have benefitted from this “ugly” produce too. Boston Children’s Hospital partnered with CWK and local farms to turn 800 pounds of “rescued” apples into 600 jars of applesauce in 2018.
Despite the current turbulence impacting many of its food producers, CWK has proved an invaluable resource to help turn their passion for food into businesses that can help support families and ultimately generate jobs.
“They were holding our hand at the right time,” says Anuradha Bhalla. “I don’t think it would have been possible on our own.”