When Cullen Gilchrist started the Blind Dog Cafe in 2012, he had no intention of launching DC's hottest food business incubator. But after the cafe's famous cookies skyrocketed in popularity, the need for a much bigger production space provided the opportunity to share that space with other food entrepreneurs. The word spread quickly. Seven years later, Union Kitchen has become so integral to DC's up-and-coming food industry that there are plans to expand to a second location.

I recently visited the Kitchen and one of its grocery stores to watch the process unfold for myself. And I'm even more exhilarated by all the new food potential than usual.

How It Works

Union Kitchen is part production facility, part co-working space, and part growth team. They partner with local food entrepreneurs, all of whom share the Union Kitchen facility. There are three levels of membership options, ranging from "Nights & Weekends" access to full "Pod Membership," which comes with your own dedicated production area. Food businesses join the Kitchen at all stages of growth, with some members early on in recipe testing and some operating fully established companies. The space provides a fully-equipped commercial kitchen—with storage space, workstations, tons of equipment, and even a USDA-approved meat production facility. 

Outside of the production section, Union Kitchen provides its members with a co-working area, perfect for collaborating with other members or perfecting behind-the-scenes tasks. There's also a separate office space for the development staff, who help with the accelerator side of the Kitchen. Everyone working in production is employed directly by the members, but each team of staff blends well with each other—a tendency that is encouraged and facilitated by the community feel of the space.

Union Kitchen offers a members' launch program, which gives three months of research & development, sales channels, and distribution network access. Brands are able to grow through direct partnership with Union Kitchen's development staff, as well as product marketing in the Kitchen's grocery stores and growth through its regional and national industry connections.

The Brands

The Blind Dog Cookie is still one of Union Kitchen's most popular products, but other brands have been able to shine as well. One of the most successful products to go through Union Kitchen's acceleration process has been Snacklins, which are described on the company's website as "puffy, crispy chip things made from yuca, mushrooms and onions." By partnering with Union Kitchen, Snacklins was able to figure out the best way to rebrand its packaging to focus on what customers love most—in this case, the fact that an entire bag is only 80 calories. Snacklins is now sold all over the country, and each bag continues to be produced in Union Kitchen's Ivy City hub.

Other favorite members include Compass Coffee, Revol Snax, M'panadas, and many more. They're all on display at the three Union Kitchen grocery stores, and often in lots of other stores around the DMV.

The Grocery Stores

When I stepped into one of Union Kitchen's grocery stores, I immediately felt like I wasn't cool enough to be there. Not because anyone wasn't welcoming (quite the contrary, actually), but because the entire space was a hip foodie's heaven. Not only is the store itself meticulously decorated with wood paneling and industrial finishes, but each product was clearly produced, packaged, and placed intentionally. The store boasts Union Kitchen-based product lines and other interesting, locally-made fare, plus coffee, sandwiches, and baked goods to order. I wanted to buy everything.

But, thanks to my not-unlimited purchasing power, I restrained myself to just a few items. I immediately approved of everything I ate, so it's probably a good thing that I live far enough away from the store to make spending all of my money there a bit challenging.

The more I learn about Union Kitchen, the more excited I am about the future of the DC food scene. There seems to be some new innovation popping up every day, and I couldn't be more thrilled to discover the next concoction that will expand through the DMV and beyond.