When Italian Dario Sorrenti came to Brussels, he did so with a plan: he wanted to bring the food of his home region to Belgium with him. And he didn’t just have your typical Italian restaurant in mind. “I want to open Brussels’ first rosticceria,” says Sorrenti. “It’s a typical takeaway from southern Italy where you can eat dishes from the region. My food is the poor food of the south, but with quality and some innovation added to it. So classical dishes like lasagne, parmigiana or arancini.”
Opening a restaurant right out of school was, however, a bit beyond the reach of the ambitious Italian, so he instead started out catering under the name BACcalameo. And there he ran into issues. Getting a professional kitchen running is a very costly affair, requiring high upfront investments, not to mention the hassle of getting all the necessary permits.
Food coworking spaces offer an alternative for such new cooks. Just like creative freelancers might share an office, budding food entrepreneurs can share a professional kitchen. And Co-oking, housed in a brightly patterned building in an Anderlecht industrial zone, is a prime example of a culinary coworking space in Brussels.
“Food entrepreneurs should have a place to start without having to put a huge amount of money on the table,” says Thomas Gendry, a Frenchman with an English accent who coordinates Co-oking. “That’s the need we fill. We’re like a coworking for the culinary space. Customers have the possibility to rent a workstation in our kitchen, which is just like a hot desk, only it’s a stainless steel table. Cooks also get access to the entire kitchen, with equipment like ovens, large pans and refrigerators. It’s plug and play.”
Since 2015, Co-oking has been giving entrepreneurs the chance to test their ideas without the risk. Cooks can just pay for their use of the kitchen, so it carries very little upfront investment and, crucially, they inherit the necessary permits. And that’s more necessary than ever in the food industry. In 2018 alone, 573 restaurants, bars and hotels declared bankruptcy in Brussels, the highest number in any business category. Bankruptcies that year included well-known restaurants Les Brasseries Georges and La Maison du Cygne.
“Co-oking was the best thing that happened to me when I was getting started,” says Sorrenti. “It gave me the possibility to do this without major upfront investment. To build a kitchen you need to spend a lot of money, and Co-oking removes that risk. Besides that, the ambience is very cool,” he adds. Sorrenti has been catering full-time for a year and a half now, and serves big clients including embassies and the European Commission.
Co-oking supports more than 20 of these food businesses, which range from caterers like Sorrenti to novel concepts such as N’Oublie Pas le Souper (“don’t forget supper”). Its Belgian founders, Robin Gevaert and Quentin Huegaerts, are bringing back the tradition of bottling meals, but with a fresh edge.
They take dishes, prepare and pasteurise them, then store them in the sort of glass jars you might remember from your grandmother’s pantry. “We’re reinventing this old tradition,” says Gevaert. “We have Belgian classics like waterzooi, but also new things like Peruvian and Indian dishes.”
They also focus on the environmental angle: they’re zero waste, organic and work with seasonal ingredients. And they’re growing quickly, with their jars available online and in stores across Brussels. “By September we hope to go full-time,” says Gevaert. “But we wouldn’t have been able to do it without Co-oking. Setting up your own kitchen costs a lot of money, and then you still have to go through the process of getting permits.”
In the meantime, Co-oking is also expanding its offering. Gendy is doing more and more events, and has even created an incubator where he offers training. “We do a series of events that will help people better build their companies,” he says. “That could be sales or marketing, but also how to work with preserved foods.” And they might start changing what they do in the future. “A bigger place and a bigger kitchen would be nice,” he says. “Right now we cover the first step of people starting a food business. But after a while they need more infrastructure. In the future we also want to be there for the second step.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin summer 2019