For many Charlotteans, the city’s growing food truck scene means delicious diversions. For Casey and Peggy Brawley, it means opportunity.
Flexing their business-to-business smarts, the Brawleys are launching a commercial kitchen commissary to service the burgeoning need of Charlotte-area food service providers. Their success with their initial company, Penny’s Gourmet Foods, led to the expansion plans.
Carolina Commercial Kitchen is expected to launch mid February. It will offer a “one stop shop” to food truck operators, caterers and independent food manufacturers whose needs for cook-in kitchens, food prep and storage, ice, propane and food delivery are not being met elsewhere in the city.
The move comes 13 years after Casey Brawley’s mother, Penny, handed down her legendary pimento cheese spread recipe to her son.
Years later, the tasty southern treat would inspire one family business, and now it’s leading to another.
“We learned so much starting our food business,” said Peggy Brawley, “Everything from how to get nutritional information on our labels, to what is required from various regulatory agencies. Along the way, we’ve come across others in similar situations and realized there was a market that wasn’t being served.”
Neither had a food service background. Casey was in real estate development, consulting and helping build golf courses across the country. Peggy was a stay-at-home mom.
Leap of faith
When the economy soured in 2008, the couple decided to take a leap of faith. At the encouragement of friends and family, the Brawleys took Casey’s mom’s recipe – Penny’s Pimento Cheese – and built a business around it. Soon, they were in local retailers such as Food Lion, Reid’s Fine Foods, several country clubs and restaurants across a five-state area.
“We knew we needed a commercial kitchen,” said Casey Brawley. “We started out at a local church working around their needs and at odd hours. As demand for our product grew, we began to look for a rental kitchen in Charlotte and could not find anything that met our needs.”
Ultimately, the Brawleys chose a familiar location for Penny’s. They built their 1,700-square-foot kitchen in the former Baker 1 police station – a building Brawley once owned with his father – in the Arnold Palmer Business Center in Charlotte’s Wendover area. With only two full-time employees, the Brawleys said the business generates over $500,000 in annual revenue.
“During our search and expansion, we came to learn other small manufacturers and caterers were frustrated by the lack of commercial kitchen space in Charlotte, and the idea began to incubate,” said Casey Brawley.
Overall, the building offered more than 12,000 square feet for expansion. Of that, 5,000 square feet is being used for phase one of Carolina Commercial Kitchen.
The space offered other considerable advantages. The parking lot, which once held police cars, was fenced and secure – ideal for overnight food-truck parking, something in scarce supply.
From conversations with area food truck owners, Casey Brawley learned it was common for a truck to get propane at one location, pick up food supplies at another, dump their gray water at yet another and prep their food at still another location. He figured offering all those services and more, in one location, would be a big hit.
A place for food producers
Fastidious planners, the Brawleys sought advice from a number of different sources and did their research, including visiting several commercial kitchens. During one visit to Asheville, they found Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a shared- use kitchen. One of the most surprising aspects of their visit was discovering how much Charlotte-area business that operation attracted.
The anecdotal feedback from salsa makers, granola-bar producers and caterers about lack of storage, prep space and a place to receive deliveries and store products was all the validation Brawley need to begin expansion plans.
Carolina Commercial Kitchen will offer a full bakery set up, convection ovens, a dry kitchen with a tilt-skillet, a wet kitchen for food prep, refrigeration, locked storage, a grease interceptor for waste discharge, gray water discharge, receiving services for supplies, ice and propane, and more, Brawley said. Services are offered on a first-come, first-served, pre-paid basis. Classroom space is available for safe-serve food service training, food demonstrations and group rental.
Numnum A GoGo Food Truck owner, Tommy Hines, expects to be one of the Brawley’s first customers.
“To have a place to park my truck, receive supplies and do all my cook-in prep is huge,” said Hines, who services the growing film and television industry trade in Charlotte.
Jim Echols owns Edible Arrangements in midtown Charlotte, a franchise that specializes in fresh fruit arrangements and chocolate-dipped fruit to order. He plans to use Carolina Commercial Kitchen during spikes in his business.
“While we have our own kitchen and work space, it is nice to have this kind of a resource available when our business demands it. Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are two specific times when we’ll likely take advantage of what they offer,” Echols said.
Brawley says he’ll start with four full-time employees, including a chef who is available to help develop and test recipes. He expects first-year revenue to top $500,000, and Brawley anticipates a waiting list from day one.No doubt Penny Brawley would be proud.