The Sunshine Kitchen crew includes, from left, Tony Santiago, Tracey Callahan, Matthew Piscitelli, Indian River State College student Alexis Aiello and Mike Nattis. Piscitelli is the manager of the new culinary space. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTOS
Chefs and food operators enhance culinary skills for better business and opportunities at Sunshine Kitchen
BY SUSAN BURGESS
Chef Matt Piscitelli was having a really good day.
He opened the door of Sunshine Kitchen and there in front of him stood 4,600 square feet of gleaming new commercial kitchen space waiting for its first use. Behind him were years of making do, from renting kitchen space in restaurants to cooking in clients’ kitchens as he pursued his passion for catering.
Now he not only has a space of his own to work in, but he is also the new manager of the commercial kitchen known as the Sunshine Kitchen Food Business Incubator — available to anyone who wants to start or grow a food production business.
For Piscitelli, whose father had been a chef in Italy, St. Lucie County’s first and only commercial kitchen was a dream come true. “I first heard about it from a Fort Pierce city commissioner and I was watching and waiting,” he says. His eight-year-old catering business, The Flavored Fork, needed its own commercial kitchen space to grow.
St. Lucie County, which built the $2.5 million 10,000-square-foot building in Treasure Coast Research Park off Kings Highway, contracted with Your Pro Kitchen of Largo to operate Sunshine Kitchen.
As opening day drew near, the chef’s excitement grew. He approached Cindy Pickering, founder of Your Pro Kitchen, about renting kitchen space for his catering business. He came away with an offer to manage the kitchen for them. He jumped at the chance. And he opened the kitchen in October.
“The kitchen helped my catering business take off,” he says. It now can handle larger events — for example, the hundreds of meals he was getting ready to produce for six clients over the next few days. The commercial kitchen, with its many work stations, allows him to call in extra chefs to work, not only helping take his own business to the next level but putting money in the pockets of more people.
Now that Sunshine Kitchen is open, Piscitelli and county staff are working on a marketing plan to get more clients for the kitchen. Piscitelli says he gets around to the farmers’ markets where he talks to vendors about using the kitchen. Two of the kitchen’s clients, Mike Nattis and Stephanie Lee, already sell at farmers’ markets.
A commercial kitchen is required by law under certain circumstances for anyone who wants to prepare food for the public, whether selling in local bakeries, stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets and catered events, or working out of a mobile food truck. Workshops on the ins and outs of the cottage food industry law are given at the Sunshine Kitchen, with the next one planned for March 16.
There is always the option of setting up a commercial kitchen at home, but it’s expensive and not easy to meet the health requirements. Some people rent space in someone else’s kitchen during a restaurant’s off hours.
The two licensed and inspected commercial kitchens inside are stocked with the equipment needed to produce professional quality food and baked goods. Multiple stations inside the kitchen can accommodate several clients at one time. A scheduling app makes sure that each chef has enough room to work. The facility is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A storage area provides dry storage and spaces for refrigerators for cold storage. And a packaging room offers a variety of ways to package food, including canning, blast chilling and vacuum sealing.
For people who dream of becoming chefs or opening their own food vending business, just getting started can be daunting, Piscitelli says. But Sunshine Kitchen isn’t only for experienced chefs. As a food business incubator, it welcomes anyone from raw beginner with a dream to an experienced person trying to move business to the next level.
Space can be rented in increments of six months, with a requirement to use the kitchen for at least eight hours a month at $15.50 an hour. As the client uses the kitchen more, the price per hour drops.
“If you are just starting out, we can make it easier. We can provide the forms to fill out and walk you through it,” Piscitelli says. He can also answer questions about cottage food industry laws and other technical questions. Chefs who use the kitchen also help each other out. It helps keep the newcomer from taking big risks and making mistakes.
Classes in food handling and food safety are offered as well, with a ServSafe food manager class and exam on March 4.
Business classes are offered by Indian River State College, along with help in developing a small business. Adjacent to the Sunshine Kitchen is the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Indian River Research and Education Center, also known as UF/IFAS-IRREC, Cooperative Extension, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Horticultural Research Lab.
Food trucks can also take advantage of having a commercial kitchen to work in, or they can use it as their base for state inspections, a place to dump their wastewater from food preparation, and even rent parking space and keep the truck there.
A few years ago, Mike Nattis of Port St. Lucie started a raw nut and seed-based snack business he named GaVi’s Goodness after his two daughters. Some of the snacks, which incorporate granola, are in bars; others are balls. He mills his own cashew and almond flour, mixes his ingredients, and when ready, drops balls directly into the plastic clamshell packaging. When everything is packaged and labeled, he stores it in plastic storage bins.
Nattis heard about the kitchen when he was at one of the farmers’ markets. He talked to Piscitelli about renting space in the kitchen.
“I was ready, chomping at the bit, to get to the next level,” Nattis recalls. “I needed to go there now.” When the kitchen opened for business in October, Nattis was there. Now he goes twice a week to make his snacks and says he’s there more often for holidays.
“It gives me a big, beautiful clean place to work. It’s fantastic — I love it,” he says. “It gives me the opportunity to use a licensed commissary (commercial kitchen) in town. And it gives other people a chance to succeed, whether they are an entry level business or an established business.”
A lot of cross-networking among chefs goes on, he says. “If Matt needs a platter, I can provide him with it.”
Sunshine Kitchen, once it gets going, is expected to be a source of jobs. “I think the kitchen will provide an economic boost to the county because there will be new businesses and they will create jobs,” says Tracey Callahan, owner of The Traveled Chef.
Ed Skvarch, IFAS Cooperative Extension director, has been keeping tabs on the activities and partnerships of commercial kitchens south of the Treasure Coast.
“Sunshine Kitchen’s story is just beginning,” he says.
Square Footage: 2 Kitchens 4,600 sq. ft. total
Production Space 1,607 sq. ft., Classroom 870 sq. ft.
Event Space 1,676 sq. ft.
Location: 7550 Pruitt Research Center Road
Treasure Coast Research Park, Fort Pierce
Manager Matt Piscitelli
Directions: From Okeechobee Road just west of Interstate 95, turn right onto Kings Highway (713). Turn left on Pruitt Research Center Road.
Video about Sunshine Kitchen: https://tinyurl.com/SLC-kitchen
Interview with Matt Piscitelli: https://tinyurl.com/Matt-P-Interview
Kitchen Rentals at Sunshine Kitchen Food Business Incubator:
The Flavored Fork - Rustic Italian Catering and Barbecue - Chef Matthew Piscitelli, Sunshine Kitchen manager
GaVi’s Goodness - Gourmet Nutritional Snacks - Michael Nattis
Good Dogs LLC - Gourmet Hot Dogs - Kyle Masur
Viva La Juice LLC - Raw Juice and Fruit Bowls - Stephanie Lee
A Moment’s Notice Event Planning & Catering - Kandice Davis
The Traveled Chef LLC - Global Cuisine Catering/Personal Chef - Chef Tracey Callahan