Oakland Indie Awards at the Kaiser Center. May 30, 2013. Oakland, Calif. Photo: Bonnie Chan/Oakland Local
The Kaiser Center Garden hosted the Oakland Indie Awards in 2013, but is most often quiet. Port Kitchens owner Mark Dessert wants to breath more life — and good food — into the space. Photo: Bonnie Chan/Oakland Local
The Kaiser Center Garden hosted the Oakland Indie Awards in 2013, but is most often quiet. Port Kitchens owner Mark Dessert wants to breath more life — and good food — into the space. Photo: Bonnie Chan/Oakland Local

Stepping off the elevator at the top floor of the Kaiser Center mall is like walking into an alternate reality. The doors open up to a quiet, perfectly manicured 3.5 acre garden that is completely hidden from the rest of downtown Oakland.

The Kaiser Center’s garden was commissioned in 1960 by Edgar Kaiser, Sr., son of Henry Kaiser, founder of Kaiser Steel and Kaiser Aluminum, to mimic the view Edgar saw of the Rockefeller gardens in his office in New York. Today, the space doesn’t see much action. Occasionally, an event or a wedding will rent out the space, but for much of the day, the garden sits empty.

That’s all about to change.

Mark Dessert, the owner of Raise the Root Cooking Collective, and Oakland-based Port Workspaces have just opened a unique kitchen co-working space in the former Garden Room restaurant that overlooks the garden. Called the Port Kitchens, this collaborative kitchen space is part of The Port’s newest co-working office space on the floor below.

Shared commercial kitchen space is nothing new for the Bay Area. Kitchener and Uptown Kitchen both operate commercial kitchens that play host to a rotating array of small food businesses. But what Dessert hopes the Port Kitchens will offer is a more modern, technology-aided collaboration between entrepreneurs. “We’re bringing commercial kitchen space into the modern age,” he said. It “is a new culinary community that will bring food entrepreneurs together in a shared environment to create, thrive, market and sell their goods. It will be an incubator for new ideas and culinary collaborations.”

Port Kitchens opened at the end of April, and currently has four tenants — The Town KitchenReal Food Cup, Raise the Root and Wine Country Culinary Adventures. Dessert hopes to fill out the space with a total of 15 or 20 businesses. “We want to have a dynamic mix of artisans” in the kitchens, he said, across a wide spectrum of size and scope.

“The whole idea is to incubate the smaller companies until they can get to a large enough scale to get their own kitchen space,” said Dessert. He says that he wants to be able to support small business growth without entrepreneurs needing to take on investors in order to grow, and hopes that everyone that comes through the kitchen eventually grows out of the space.

At 2,500 square feet, Port Kitchen is sizable — close to twice the square footage of nearby Kitchener, and close to the size of Uptown Kitchen. Dessert and his team were able to keep much of the original restaurant equipment in the kitchen, which saved them money in the renovation. The range and ovens are over 50 years’ old, but, Dessert says, “the parts are the same” as anything you’d buy now and just needed a thorough cleaning. The kitchen also includes a double-deck smoker that triple-functions as a low temperature and steam oven, a 40-gallon steam kettle, shared appliances, convection ovens, a large walk-in refrigerator and freezer, several reach-in refrigerators, and abundant storage space.

It’s the storage space that is most appealing to the entrepreneurs Dessert has spoken with. “Storage is a big issue with commercial kitchens. I didn’t want people to have to lug their stuff in and out of the kitchen,” he said. Dessert also plans on instating a bulk pantry goods ordering system to help the food business save money on commonly used items like flour and salt.

Mark Dessert (left, pictured with Chef MikeC), founder of Raise the Root Cooking Collective, is now running Port Kitchens in collaboration with Port Workspaces in Uptown Oakland. Photo: Raise the Root

Because Port Kitchens is in a former restaurant, it comes with a large dining space, complete with a large bar. Starting in a few weeks, the shell of the restaurant will be transformed into a shared “café” space for members of Port Workpaces and the kitchen. And outside, there will be a terrace area, complete with grills and planter boxes for growing edible gardens. At night, the café space will be available to rent out for events, just like the garden.

Each member of the Port Kitchens is also required to become a member of Port Workspaces, which, Dessert says, will be a boon to these young entrepreneurs. Basic office equipment is readily available, and, he hopes, so will business advice.

It is the nature of modern co-working spaces to encourage collaboration, and Dessert believes that this type of community is lacking in the shared kitchen spaces currently in operation. The Port Kitchens provide “the first real synergy between kitchen space and co-working,” he said. He is adopting the tech-based scheduling program, LiquidSpace, to keep the kitchen operating efficiently and will encourage his tenants to reach out to co-working colleagues who may be able to help with accounting or legal services. “We want to encourage people to be into a collaborative community.”

All of the kitchen tenants will be able to sell their wares directly to other co-working tenants, and Dessert plans to create a Port Kitchens online marketplace for sales outside of the building. Port Kitchens will also host monthly pop-up events in the gardens, as well as occasional special events. Port Kitchens has already thrown two parties, and all of the entrepreneurs currently working in the kitchen were given the opportunity to serve their food.

Dessert also hopes to open what he is calling a “cookbook café” in the former ToGo’s space at 344 20th Street on the ground floor of the Kaiser Center. The café will, appropriately, be decorated with cookbooks and will sell “hand crafted” food products from the Port Kitchen, as well as other local food businesses.

Besides running the new kitchen space, Dessert organizes and teaches cooking classes through Raise the Root. He wants his new tenants to do the same. Teaching, Dessert says, can be a great way for the entrepreneurs “to connect with their fans, to show off their skills and to enlighten the public about the process they go through to create their hand crafted artisanal products.”

In the end, though, Dessert says that the mission of Port Kitchens is simple. “We want to create community and opportunity for burgeoning food entrepreneurs.”

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Kate Williams

Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...