You may not know what a commissary is, but Tyler’s food scene desperately needs one

Tyler's food trucks, pop-up bakers, and caterers are missing a key ingredient: somewhere to cook.

One rainy day last month, I walked into The Foundry expecting to put in my usual order: hot chai and a slice of quiche from M+K Provisions, a duo of local craft bakers who’ve been supplying the coffeehouse ever since it opened three years ago. I never cared for quiche till I tried M+K’s meticulous, pillowy ideal. I’m also hooked on their jalapeño cheese danish and origami-esque apricot tart; they remind me of world-class patisseries in San Francisco. But on that drizzly afternoon, The Foundry’s pastry case was strangely bare. The barista gave me the bad news: the folks behind M+K recently lost their rented kitchen space and are out of business until they find a new place to cook. How hard could that be, right? And more importantly, how long till I get my quiche fix?

“Oh man, I so wish I could tell you,” Chris Kurth, co-founder of M+K Provisions, told me when I called him up. “We’ve been driving all over town almost every day, looking for hood vents”—metal openings on the side of buildings indicating there might be industrial kitchen space inside. “I know it sounds kind of crazy. But we’re desperate.”

Four years ago, Kurth and his co-founder/wife Michelle Armock moved to East Texas from Southern California to be closer to family. Between them, they have over 30 years of experience as chefs and bakers, including at Michelin-starred restaurants. They decided to do something different when they landed in Texas, and for the past two years, they’ve been baking out of Bethesda Health Clinic in downtown Tyler. The health clinic has an onsite kitchen where it hosted healthy cooking classes, and agreed to let M+K use the kitchen when it wasn’t occupied. But the classes were eventually discontinued, and Bethesda decided to do something else with the space. Kurth and Armock were notified earlier this year that they’d need to find a new home. “We’re incredibly grateful that Bethesda gave us a place to work,” says Kurth. “We knew it was going to be hard to find something else, but we had no idea how bad.”

Tyler has a seemingly endless and ever-growing supply of restaurants, as we recently reported, but what we don’t have is a commissary. A commissary is a licensed commercial kitchen often used by food pros who don’t have their own brick-and-mortar kitchen—think caterers, food truck operators, and small-batch vendors like M+K. They rent the space to cook, store ingredients, and park their equipment. Kitchens in schools, churches, and hospitals can fill the same need. Some companies even rent the kitchens of other restaurants during off-hours. Since losing their lease at Bethesda, Kurth and Armock have reached out to over a dozen landlords or operators of commercial kitchens—with no luck.

At one point, Kurth was told it would cost M+K $4,000 a month to rent just a portion of a currently empty commercial kitchen in a shopping center off Broadway south of downtown. “‘I’m like, you’re out of your mind,'” Kurth recalls saying. A chef friend of Kurth’s in Portland, Oregon, rents larger space in a kitchen on a busy main drag in that foodie-mecca city for half the amount Kurth was quoted in Tyler. “I just don’t understand why this is so impossible here,” says Kurth. “We’ve cooked all over the country, and nowhere have we had the kind of frustrations that we’re having in Tyler. We’re at the point where we might have to take other jobs” instead of continuing M+K.

M+K isn’t the only non-traditional food company feeling out in the cold. A number of struggling, aspiring, or even failed indie food professionals in Tyler say there simply isn’t enough affordable commercial kitchen space in Tyler. And, as M+K can attest, even if you luck into a corner of the local VFW hall or health clinic, you might not have it for long. That’s why a proper commissary, one that’s intended to be rented by multiple food-service professionals at once, is vital in any city where creative, talented cooks have ambitions beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.

For example, one reason the hotly-awaited Tyler Food Truck Park never got off the ground is that there simply aren’t enough licensed food trucks in Tyler; to get a license, you need somewhere to cook. Sola Bread Co. gave up on dreams to run a mobile pizza oven largely for the same reason. Nearly all of Tyler’s successful food truck operators rely on kitchens they already had. For instance, Curbside Taco is owned by the proprietors of Villa Montez. Lupita’s, which often sells tacos outside ETX Brewery, also runs a restaurant by the same name. If you’re trying to start something from scratch, there’s a vanishingly small number of options out there.

Given that there’s clearly demand for rentable kitchen space in Tyler, why hasn’t anyone stepped up to fill the void? For one thing, you can’t open a commissary in Tyler without getting a license from the Northeast Texas Public Health District, the health agency that oversees food safety in the city. Food safety and commissary regulations imposed by NETHealth tend to be more stringent—and expensive to comply with—than state laws. We’re hoping to dig into NETHealth’s food safety record in Tyler in-depth in a future story, but it’s worth noting that the city has debated pulling out of its contract with NETHealth over criticisms of its regulations.

Despite the obstacles, Kat Santos, a seasoned chef and caterer with over 25 years of hospitality experience under her belt, is currently attempting to open a commissary in Tyler. She’s secured a 6,000-square-foot downtown location for FoodWorx of Tyler, her new venture, at 1523 E. Erwin, the site of a former bar and grill. Santos says the building has ample room for her vision, which goes well beyond simple cooktops. “It’s a three-part program,” she says: part-kitchen space, part-culinary institute for aspiring chefs, and part-small biz workshop for food entrepreneurs.

While Santos has secured financing to pay for some staff, volunteering will be key. For instance, if a local chef or baker wants to rent FoodWorx’s kitchen, Santos might ask them to also teach a class on, say, knife skills, or payroll software. She also wants to develop a jobs re-entry program through FoodWorx for people who were formerly incarcerated or dealing with homelessness. “We want to benefit the local economy, support food entrepreneurs, and give folks from underserved communities a chance to own their own businesses,” Santos says, citing successful shared-use kitchen programs similar to hers across the country.

There’s no end to Santos’s ambitions, but first, she has to get the building in shape for NETHealth’s inspectors; she’s “cautiously optimistic” that she can open her doors in March. In the meantime, Chris Kurth of M+K isn’t holding his breath. “We want something to work out so bad,” he tells me, “but we also have to be realistic.” He and Armock have bills to pay and decisions to make, and at the moment, there simply doesn’t appear to be anywhere for them to cook in Tyler. Leaving town altogether isn’t off the table. “Trust me, it stings,” Kurth tells me.

The feeling is mutual.

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.