WATCH NOW: New commercial kitchen hopes to support local entrepreneurs, turn downtown Hammond into a ‘restaurant mecca’ | Hammond News

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Virginette Fitzpatrick talks about being able to use the Hammond Development Corporation Community Kitchen for her Stella Café.

HAMMOND — After leaving her 20-year career in the human resources field, Niki Clemons began her journey into food entrepreneurship.

“When I retired I thought ‘what do I do well?’ I have always cooked, so it was just natural,” Clemons said. “I knew how to cook, but I did not know anything about business.”

While Clemons has always loved whipping up intricate pastries and savory entrees, the Hammond Development Corporation helped her turn her culinary skills into a business plan. 

Clemons participated in the HDC’s NxLevel entrepreneurship training program. After graduating she started her very own ‘Niki’s Urban Eats’ catering business. Now Clemons is helping food entrepreneurs like herself get a leg up through the HDC’s new commercial kitchen. 

Hammond Development Corporation unveils commercial kitchen

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. talks about progress in Hammond during the Hammond Development Corporation commercial kitchen unveiling.

A crowd of about 50 gathered Tuesday morning for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the HDC’s commercial-grade kitchen. Located in HDC’s HUB building at 5233 Hohman Avenue, the kitchen contains everything a start-up business owner needs, said Clemons, who will also serve as kitchen manager.

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Stainless steel fridges, marble countertops, an oven, a giant mixer and metal racks stacked with pots, pans, cutting boards, rolling pins and whisks are all nestled in the 2,000 square-foot space. 

Attendees snacked on breakfast sandwiches and waffles prepared by Clemons as Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. discussed how the kitchen fits into Hammond’s downtown redevelopment plan.

Hammond Development Corporation unveils commercial kitchen

As Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and executive director Jennifer Bussey look on, program director Jackie De Rosa talks about HDC’s new kitchen.

“It’s an area where entrepreneurs who want to get started have an opportunity to do so without investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money,” McDermott said. “Hopefully once they [the entrepreneurs] grow out of this kitchen space, they will move into a permanent building site throughout our city — that’s the idea behind it. And downtown Hammond, there’s a lot going on right now.”

While the sound of cars speeding down Hohman Avenue hummed in the background, McDermott explained that the downtown redesign will make the area more pedestrian-friendly and will bring new housing to Hammond. HDC Executive Director Jen Bussey said entrepreneurs who get started in the kitchen could fill some of the vacant storefronts downtown, making it a “restaurant mecca.” 

Hammond Development Corporation unveils commercial kitchen

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. cuts the ribbon for the HDC’s new kitchen. Members will be able to rent the kitchen starting at the end of April. 

Indiana law prohibits the sale of foods that are processed or manufactured in home kitchens. Aside from ArtHouse in Gary, rentable commercial kitchen space is scarce, meaning chefs who are just starting out have limited options. That is why the HDC is launching a food entrepreneurship program alongside the new kitchen. 

The HDC has offered the NxLevel entrepreneurship program, which teaches participants how to start a business, for seven years. HDC Program Director Jackie De Rosa said between 20-30% of NxLEVEL students are food-based entrepreneurs.

In past years, students could rent the HDC’s pop-up cafe to test out their products. Located across the street from the HUB, the cafe has fridges and warmers, but the food has to be cooked off-site. 

This summer, for $150, students can take a 10-week-long food entrepreneurship program, which includes a one-year membership to use the kitchen and either one free day in the pop-up cafe or 2 1/2 free hours in the kitchen. For nonstudents, membership costs $100 a year and renting the kitchen is an additional $20 an hour. All users must be ServSafe certified. The Hammond Health Department also came out and inspected the kitchen, De Rosa said. 

Hammond Development Corporation unveils commercial kitchen

Niki Clemons of Niki’s Urban Eats catered the ribbon cutting. Clemons prepared the spread using the new kitchen.

The kitchen will be available for rent at the end of April. 

“We are hoping this will help spearhead some small businesses, create some new, unique food in the downtown area and also help people realize that dream of ‘what if I can do this? What if I can be a restaurant owner?'” Bussey said. “We are targeting the people that make their grandma’s pies or their special salad dressing. … They’ve taken that skill, and now they are trying to make a business out of out. … It can’t come out of their pockets to pay an extraordinary amount for a kitchen.”