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How community kitchens help Arizona entrepreneurs and families

Inside Rio Salado College in west Phoenix, Arlette Gomez-Kponton is making a black chili sauce called ebesse, a Togolese word that translates to pepper.

“We have fresh ginger, fresh onions, fresh garlic,” she said. “We have some dry fish.”

And more, including an all-purpose seasoning she’s not willing to reveal.

“It’s the taste of Africa," Gomez-Kponton said. “It has all the spices from Togo, not from here. That's the secret ingredient.”

“I don’t give up easily. That’s my secret sauce,” said Carmen Attikossie, Arlette’s daughter. 

When Attikossie began working with her mother six months ago, she focused on product development for Golden Palm Foods — evaluating their sauce, seasoning and salted peanuts from source to market. 

“Golden Palm Foods is a social impact driven food startup that tells the story of Togo and West Africa through our food culture,” Attikossie said. “So we make consumer packaged goods and we work with smallholder farmers and locals on the ground to bring tasty, delightful products for folks who are curious about West Africa or just curious about other parts of the world’s cuisine." 

Three months ago, Attikossie and Gomez-Kponton joined the first group of entrepreneurs accepted into Local First Arizona’s community kitchen in Maryvale. Local First is a nonprofit organization dedicated to local, independent businesses and economic opportunities.

“We do go through the process of showing them how to use the kitchen,” said Jose Gamiz, program manager. 

People must apply and go through interviews before committing to the two-year program.

“We help guide as much as we can, but the entrepreneurs have to be willing to put in the work." — Jose Gamiz, food entrepreneurship program, Local First Arizona

“We help guide as much as we can, but the entrepreneurs have to be willing to put in the work,” Gamiz said.

The work’s been happening since 2018, when Local First opened its first community kitchen in Mesa, followed by south Phoenix in 2021. The group said it’s helped more than 200 restaurants and food businesses.

In addition to drilling down on who their customers are — the answer is not everybody — and how to find them, Gamiz said determining food costs can be among the most challenging questions. 

“As entrepreneurs – and it’s happened to me where I think, “Oh man, should I really be charging $2.50 a taco? That seems like a lot.' And then you do the math and you’re like, ‘Well, really, I should be charging $4. At $2.50, I’m losing money,'” he said.

Participants can rent kitchen space that includes dry and cold storage, pots, pans and utensils, for $8 an hour. A typical commercial kitchen costs $35 or more.

On a recent Friday night, Fareedeh Afiune used her mother’s recipe to make her Muncheese Cake.

“They usually have Mexican cookies instead of graham cookies,” she said.

Strawberry is her bestseller but she’s emotionally attached to another flavor.

“From my father’s side, my grandmother was from Lebanon. So now I have the chance to honor her. She loved to cook, so now I think of her every time I’m stirring my cheesecakes and make a baklava cheesecake,” Afiune said.

She and others have access to mentors who can answer questions, provide guidance and offer advice.

“Two weeks ago, I called one of my — I like to tell them teachers — and I’m like, ‘Anita, I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ And she was like, ‘You need to take a day off. Like, do you have a day off?’ Well, on Mondays, I check emails. No, no, no, no, no. You have to take a day off and have you time,” she said.

Afiune said working six markets and festivals over three days isn’t unusual.

“I can tell you that minimum per week, I’m making 20 dozens."

The best part, Fareedeh said, is being her own boss, checking her bank account, “and discovering myself being an independent woman in the United States after all these years of hustling, you know, in so many jobs.”

For Carmen Attikossie, who initially wasn’t interested in working with her mom, the experience has strengthened their relationship.

“Now we have a newfound appreciation for each other." — Carmen Attikossie, Golden Palm Foods

“Now we have a newfound appreciation for each other,” she said. “I mean, do we get on each other’s nerves sometimes? Yeah. But then, at the end of the day, when, like it gets tough, we roll up our sleeves and say, “Okay, let’s go.”  

“I love the confidence we have each other because I trust Carmen, my daughter, and she trusts me too,” Arlette Gomez-Kponton said. 

For her, it’s about building a business for her children.

“I want to leave something behind [for] my children, my grand, my great children, so I will feel so good in heaven,” Gomez-Kponton said.

Local First Arizona plans to open a fourth community kitchen at 12th Street and Jefferson in Phoenix, which should accommodate  up to 18 businesses. 

Applications are being accepted for all locations. Interviews are conducted in January, April, July and October each year.

Before applying for the community kitchen program, entrepreneurs should:

  • Have an EIN (employer identification number) also known as Federal Tax Identification Number.
  • Be registered as an LLC through the Arizona Corporation Commission.
  • Have a completed food menu, preferably food-costed or in the process of food costing recipes.

  More information about the food business incubator program is here.

Local First Arizona said community kitchens are funded through a blend of grants, foundation support and sponsorships.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to the Maricopa County Community College District.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.