CoMo Cooks helps foodie entrepreneurs thrive — one recipe and one business at a time.
Starting your own business can be frightening. Whether you quit your day job and dive in headfirst or dip your toes in it part-time, you’re taking a risk. That’s especially true in the food industry where according to the National Restaurant Association, one in three new businesses fail in their first year.
New food businesses fail for numerous reasons, from lack of capital to a lack of knowing the business end of their passion. Fortunately for some Columbia entrepreneurs, there’s the CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen at 14 Business Loop 70 East.
CoMo Cooks provides clients who rent time and space in the commercial kitchen access to business coaching and workshops, public relations and social media support, and the benefits of The Loop’s CRE shared branding for all the makers who use the kitchen. Manager Trish Siekmann brings to the table years of management experience in the food and restaurant industry across the country as well as her experience as a chef with a culinary degree.
The kitchen’s mission involves giving entrepreneurs a chance to pursue their dreams — regardless of background, income, or status. Nearly three years after starting, the organization is delivering on that promise. Of the nearly thirty businesses using the kitchen, half are minority-owned and 65 percent are women-owned.
“We want these small businesses to grow so they can get out there and get a brick and mortar if they want one,” Siekmann says. “I like watching everyone in here making their stuff and doing it with such drive and passion. Every product that comes out of here is made with 100 percent heart. Everybody is putting into it their best.”
Siekmann hopes that when individuals, companies, and organizations are looking for great food and drink options, they look at the clients — past and present — of CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen. Here are just a few of Columbia’s newest food entrepreneurs.
Jan Sanchez, the owner, pastry chef, and chocolatier for Tsokolate, was CoMo Cooks’ first client in 2020. Columbia is a long way from where she worked in the kitchen of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud in the Big Apple. It’s even farther from where she was raised in the Philippines where a cacao tree grew in the yard.
Today, Sanchez sells her beautiful confections at the Columbia Farmers Market and from her company’s online store at tsokolate.co. Without CoMo Cooks, she probably would not have been able to launch Tsokolate.
“It’s hard to find a commercial kitchen you can rent around Columbia, and it’s a requirement to only operate out of a commercial kitchen,” Sanchez says. “When I moved here from New York City in 2020, it was during the same time CoMo Cooks opened. So, it was the perfect timing.”
Sanchez says the cost to rent commercial kitchen space and equip it is prohibitive to a startup business. Here, she has the space and equipment to use two or three times a week at an affordable hourly rate. Although she knows how to create her products, Sanchez has relied on the marketing, accounting, and other business instruction she receives from CoMo Cooks.
“These are all important in running a business that people tend to forget or not want to think about because it’s not very sexy. But it’s the backbone for your business to keep going and growing,” she says.
Tsokolate’s mission is tightly linked to teaching people. Besides growing her business, Sanchez’s plans include adding a more prominent education component, as well as employing and mentoring more women. Nothing could be sweeter.
El Moe’s Catering
El Moe’s Catering and Caribbean Cuisine Food Truck is CoMo Cooks’ newest client. Moises Cortes, owner and executive chef, has helped other companies cater events for sixteen years. For the last twelve years, he has been the executive chef and dining services director for Tigerplace, a senior independent living residence.
One of the companies he has worked with is Bush’s Catering. Owner Chris Bush, who attends the same church as Cortes and his family, encouraged Cortes to put his faith in God and open his own business.
“I told him I had some seed money but not enough for a brick-and-mortar kitchen,” Cortes says. “So, he told me about the nonprofit COMO CRE8 kitchen and told me to speak to Trish.”
Although Cortes says letting go of his job, cashing in an investment, and launching a business is the toughest decision he has ever made, he’s now prepping, cooking, packaging, and delivering catered dishes from the shared kitchen. Customers can reach the business via its website, elmoescatering.com, by phone at 862-371-9729, or on social media.
“Surround yourself with people who believe in you; people who have tasted your food and know you’re a great chef,” Cortes says. “Trish from CoMo Cooks is an awesome mentor and can point you in the right direction getting your startup business off the ground.”
He adds, “The kitchen gives you the ability to slowly grow the business without the anxiety of several large monthly payments like a lease, gas, and electricity that are due whether you have sales or not. And when the walls are closing in, reach for that higher power in your life or whatever you find spiritually rewarding.”
Boosted by his family, friends, faith, and CoMo Cooks, Cortes is reaching for the stars.
Crimefighter by day and delicious sauce maker by night, Chris Sullivan is setting hearts and mouths on fire with Sully Sauce. Well, perhaps it’s more like a slow, gentle burn that creeps up on you, which is why Sullivan calls it a “sweet heat flavored sauce.”
Sullivan, a police officer/road supervisor with the North County Police Cooperative in St. Louis County, launched Sully Sauce at Columbia’s Juneteenth celebration this year at Cosmo Park, just after he started using the CoMo Cooks Shared Kitchen as a client. Demand for his product, and plans to wholesale it to grocery stores someday, meant moving out of his home kitchen.
“The shared kitchen helps in the fact that it is a large commercial kitchen with everything that’s needed to make my product,” Sullivan says. “A lot of the cooking, storage, and refrigeration space that is offered there is not available at home. The ability to sign up in advance to make sure I have needed access to the CoMo Cooks kitchen is a very unique and wonderful situation to be in.”
According to Sullivan, fresh ingredients are the secret sauce to Sully Sauce. So is its versatility. Sullivan recommends eating it hot on pasta, wings, and chicken tenders, or cold with nacho chips, bread, or cheese sticks. Sully Sauce comes with or without meat. But fresh peppers, carrots, and onions are the bases for both.
“As a new and first-time entrepreneur, my advice would be to do your research and find spaces available to help offset some of your initial costs until your business is in a positive cash flow situation,” Sullivan says. “The CoMo Cooks kitchen is a great tool to have in the arsenal. The small fees they charge are but a drop in the bucket compared to what it would cost without this amazing place.”
Sauce sales are off to a great start. The Sully Sauce Facebook page states that it’s a “Midwest-based business with national aspirations.” Sullivan can ship the product frozen anywhere in the country. Orders can be placed by emailing email@example.com, or by calling or texting 573-777-2190.
Or you might see Sully Sauce in the refrigerated or frozen food aisles of your Columbia grocery store someday. That’s the plan.
Pasta La Fata
Wait a minute. Pasta La Fata is located at 1207 Rogers Street, near Logboat Brewing Company So, what’s this restaurant doing among the clients of CoMo Cooks?
It’s because from summer 2021 through spring 2022, owner and chef Michelle (Shelly) La Fata ran her business out of the shared kitchen. It was, as she puts it, “The perfect incubator for us.” La Fata started at the Columbia Farmers Market, doing pop-ups at area bars, and by serving toasted ravioli at Café Berlin. In 2019, she put a name on it: Pasta La Fata.
“At the time, it was just a side-hustle and a creative project,” La Fata says. “I had no sense of what it would eventually become.”
She had many jobs before and after going to culinary school. While working to open a brick-and-mortar location for Pasta La Fata, she needed time and space to keep producing food for the Farmers Market and online sales. The shared kitchen was the perfect solution.
You’ll still see Pasta La Fata selling delicious handmade pasta, salads, and more at the Columbia Farmers Market. And more than a year after leaving the CoMo Cooks space, La Fata’s business is still looking to turn a profit, which isn’t unusual for restaurants.
“We need a 20 percent increase in revenue,” La Fata says. “In order to make it work, we’ve been very creative with revenue streams, events, and classes, which is really fun but maybe not sustainable for me personally to run a restaurant, teach classes, and cater and coordinate events every weekend. So, it would be awesome if the restaurant and market would become a routine for more people.”
Her advice for other could-be entrepreneurs?
“Many organizations and individuals will help you. The people in this town are very friendly and supportive,” La Fata says. “Ask for help.”
CoMo Cooks Vendors
2 Odd Dawgs
850 Wood Fire Pizza & More
Abbey Swahili Delights
Amore e Gusto
Back 2 Basics Cooking
Cola’s Fish and Chicken
El Moe’s Catering
HighBread Bakery and Treats
J-Dawgz Hotdogs & Catering
Lefty’s Kettle Corn
Mahi’s Ethiopian Cuisine
Mia Taco Truck
Root Cellar @ The Packing House
Tenley’s Farm and Bakery
The Biscuit Center
The Lunch Lady
The Night Owl
The Patty Wagon
Turkish American Society of Missouri