By Nkenna Onwuzuruoha
Ana Valdemoros and Tham Soekotjo, the owners of Square Kitchen, can be described as unassuming, hard-working people. As I walk in their culinary incubator warehouse space at 751 W. 800 South, I find them sitting side by side, heads down, engaged in paperwork behind a folding table where the open area meets the kitchen. They are humble, yet they have both played an integral part in increasing economic opportunities and a general feeling of community on the west side.
Tham worked for over eight years at NeighborWorks Salt Lake, a local organization focused on community housing and development, and runs his own food truck. Ana received her master’s degree in city and metropolitan planning from the University of Utah nearly two years ago, worked for the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development and Planning Division, runs her own empanada business, and was recently appointed to represent District 4 on the Salt Lake City Council, replacing Derek Kitchen, who was elected into the Utah State Senate.
Ana and Tham have personally encountered some of the challenges that prevent small food makers from growing their businesses. Their willful spirits and long-standing commitment to the west side set them on a mission over two years in the making to create an outlet to help small business owners learn how to navigate some of these hurdles.
In fall 2018, the couple opened the doors to Square Kitchen, a culinary incubator kitchen where small-scale food producers prepare their goods to sell from their food trucks or in public venues like farmers markets, festivals and retail stores. Clients schedule time in the fully equipped space anywhere from a day, which is ideal for traveling chefs, to months at a time.
The incubator offers emerging businesses an environment that fosters growth and independence. Ana and Tham mentor clients on being efficient with their time, keeping their finances in order, and maintaining a clean work environment. Clients also have access to resources they would not receive elsewhere, including legal services, photographers, and marketing, branding and professional design consultants at no cost. Collaboration and cross-referencing often occur among members. One business may use the bread that another business bakes in one of its menu items. One entrepreneur may tell another about an opportunity to work an event. Square Kitchen clients chat informally and during their meetings that happen every two months about what has and has not worked for them.
Recently, Spice Kitchen Incubator, a nonprofit that provides around 25 refugees and low-income community members with opportunities to grow a food business, relocated to Square Kitchen. The partnership between the two incubators has meant more material resources on site and a lively flux of customers and clients frequenting the space.
This quieter part of the Poplar Grove now not only has more vigor but security. The lights are always on at Square Kitchen since it remains available to clients at all hours. Ana and Tham believe this has been an appreciated crime deterrent in the neighborhood. “We watch out for each other,” she said. Ana and Tham also believe that Square Kitchen’s presence has inspired the houses and businesses to take more pride in their own properties and work with the city to beautify their neighborhood. They both have started to see proof of this along 800 South.
A measure of success for both Square Kitchen and its clients is outgrowing the space. Local businesses Hello Bulk Market, Wasatch Nectar, Fuego Mexican Grill, and Buzzed Coffee have most or all of their production and sales off-site. Moreover, two of the aforementioned businesses have established a physical location on the west side. Buzzed Coffee truck’s owner, long-time Rose Park resident Trina Perez, is looking to open a brick-and-mortar coffee shop in her neighborhood.
For entrepreneurs who look to Ana and Tham or their clients for inspiration on how to start their own business, they stress that perseverance and persistence are key. Tham believes, “If you’re willing to not just work hard, but persevere through all of the trials and tribulations, then good things will come out of it. And don’t forget that there’s always help. We didn’t go through this alone. We had a lot of help and support.”
Ana and Tham have as much ambition as they did when they first embarked on starting their own businesses. I asked them what they see in the future for Square Kitchen five or 10 years down the road, and they look at one another and smile. They tell me about phase two. In the near future, they plan to convert the front space into a retail shop and food court open regularly with about four or five permanent tenants and rotating clients. They also plan to establish an advisory board to assure that Square Kitchen’s mission continues to attract community support.
In the meantime, the two invite everyone to attend the incubator’s Sunday pop-up markets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit Square Kitchen’s social media pages for details. Square Kitchen also rents its front area for events, such as birthday parties, wine clubs, conferences, neighborhood meetings, fundraisers, and wedding receptions, with the option of having any number of Square Kitchen clients cater their event. Ana and Tham are also accepting new clients. There’s an easy pre-application for prospective Square Kitchen clients on squarekitchenslc.com