Tamesha Russell always knew she wanted to work in the culinary field.
As a child, she found joy in cooking and baking for family and friends. Russell said she took over the duties of preparing Thanksgiving dinner as a teen.
Now as a mother of three young sons, Russell said she started on her goal to work in the field after she ordered a first birthday cake for one of her children. The cake was supposed to be decorated with a Sesame Street theme. The dessert’s appearance was too chaotic, she said, and Russell vowed she would make his next birthday cake.
That turned into her business: Baked Dreams Creations.
“It turned into doing custom cakes and birthday cakes and events and parties and all of those things,” Russell said. “Then it took off.”
Russell is one of about 40 entrepreneurs who have rented space in a new commercial kitchen in Milwaukee that doubles as a business incubator. Upstart Kitchen is a project of Prism Economic Development Corp. The organization was developed through Parklawn Assembly of God, which serves the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee.
Bishop Walter Harvey, Prism Economic Development Corp. … “We see ourselves as a root or a seed.”
Prism was created to catalyze improvements in the neighborhood, with Upstart Kitchen representing its first solution.
Upstart Kitchen, 4323 W. Fond du Lac Ave., marked its grand opening in September, although businesses began operating out of the kitchen earlier. The facility has about 1,300 square feet of rentable space, divided into three kitchen areas: a bakery, a hot line and a sandwich preparation area. Beyond the commercial kitchen space, though, clients of Upstart Kitchen also have access to wraparound business development resources.
For Russell, Upstart Kitchen was an opportunity to start turning Baked Dreams into her full-time work. She said she started the process of signing on to use Upstart Kitchen’s space last year. Because the concept is new, Russell said she is still learning about the full scope of opportunities as a client, but she expects one of the benefits to be networking.
“The possibilities are really endless, so I’m learning what those possibilities are as we go, because I think this is all really fresh for everyone,” Russell said.
Alicia Green at work at Upstart Kitchen
Russell and her fellow entrepreneurs spark a sense of joy to Bishop Walter Harvey, the chief executive officer of Prism. Harvey was the pastor at Parklawn for the past 28 years. He transitioned to focus his attention on the economic development organization.
Harvey said the idea behind Prism was that the church could play a role bigger than providing the community a place for worship. For Parklawn to transform lives, Harvey said, he would have to get outside the church walls and be part of people’s careers.
That’s common for churches, Harvey said, particularly those that serve African American communities. Over the years, churches have also founded schools, created scholarships to help kids access higher education and established societies and programs to help people grow professionally.
“The church had to do that, historically, because these institutions were not accessible to many African Americans here in our nation for many years,” Harvey said.
Bishop Walter Harvey stands outside Upstart Kitchen in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.
Parklawn has been in Milwaukee for more than 100 years and has been at its current campus in the Sherman Park neighborhood since the early 1980s.
“We feel that we have an assignment to be planted where we are,” Harvey said. “We see ourselves as a root or a seed. The Prism Economic Development Corp. is one of the branches that has grown out of that seed, and the Upstart Kitchen is our first piece of fruit that food entrepreneurs and families are eating the fruit of it and benefiting.”
Harvey said the church was already aware of the income disparities across ethnic lines locally, statewide and nationally. Parklawn wanted to create a foundation for economic parity.
Two ZIP codes comprise the Sherman Park neighborhood: 53210 and 53216. In the Milwaukee area, those two ZIP codes had among the lowest median household income in 2018 – less than $36,000. Nationally that year, the median household income was about $60,300.
The church also is located in a neighborhood that saw civil unrest in 2016 after a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Sylville Smith.
Albert Yee is the director of community needs and coordinates a program to provide meals for community members out of the kitchen.
The unrest included protests, as well as damage to neighborhood businesses. In one high-profile response, developers Juli Kaufmann and JoAnne Sabir refilled a fire-damaged BMO Harris Bank branch with the Sherman Phoenix. They created an entrepreneurial and wellness hub that houses about 30 small businesses that are mainly Black-owned.
The Sherman Phoenix opened Nov. 30, 2018.
Harvey said the unrest was about three blocks south of the church, and Parklawn was moved to work beyond its walls. He pointed to a quote from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“We began hearing very clearly that there were dreams that were unfulfilled, that (there) were goals that were not attained, and there were obstacles in the way,” Harvey said. “Upstart Kitchen is a direct reflection of us listening and learning and lamenting, and then leveraging the resources that we have so that we can lead together with the community.”
Harvey already was fostering his economic development organization by the time the shooting and unrest occurred. Seven years ago, Prism had been working with the former University of Wisconsin-Extension to use an economic development grant geared toward helping faith communities create opportunities for light manufacturing. The church wanted to give entrepreneurs a space to package their own food products, like sauces and jellies.
But Parklawn didn’t see significant traction, Harvey said, and the organization evolved the concept to a commercial kitchen across the street from the church. A Prism board member, Maurice Wince, purchased the property that houses Upstart Kitchen.
As a spiritual leader, Harvey said, he worked to be inclusive. He had the same perspective when he assembled Prism’s board, looking at the different professional gifts, skills and abilities in the Parklawn congregation and beyond.
One of those board members is Ariam Kesete, Prism’s vice president and a local real estate developer. Kesete started her own development firm after working in human services, which inspired her to focus her developments in city neighborhoods. Kesete said her emphasis is on giving communities the resources they need for families to be stable.
Her development experience informs how she contributes to Prism as it works to strengthen Sherman Park.
“One of the biggest supports that I realized as a developer, where Prism was not only a success for the community but for our future developers, is that never assume you can build an infrastructure that can sustain and support a community by yourself,” Kesete said. “Especially communities that are disadvantaged or disenfranchised.”
Tamesha Russell of Baked Dreams Creations … “The possibilities are really endless, so I’m learning what those possibilities are as we go.”
Upstart Kitchen is an economic opportunity on its own, Kesete said. Its rent rate gives entrepreneurs access to resources they might not otherwise have, she said.
In addition to a more affordable price, entrepreneurs have access to support services from kitchen manager Pat Jones. A hospitality veteran, Jones said she has worked in positions throughout the food and beverage industry, including accounting, human resources, event production, sales, dishwashing and cooking.
Jones also has her own catering company.
From that experience, Jones said she is drawing business lessons and advice to share with Upstart Kitchen’s clients.
“I realized way back when that I spent too much time on some things, too much money on some things, and not enough on other things,” Jones said. “That’s part of the growth that I have taken. Also through the couple years, it took me years to learn how to not be working in my business but working on my business, and the value of paying businesses to do things I’m not talented (at) so I can focus on the things I’m good at.”
For example, Jones said, she has learned she is better off paying someone a fee to develop a website to market her services, because her time is better spent in the field working on sales. She passes these experiences on to the entrepreneurs renting space from Upstart Kitchen so they can best manage their time.
With about 40 clients already booked, 20 or so in the queue and more than 50 on a waiting list, Jones said the kitchen is seeing success with its model. The entrepreneurs are obtaining the requisite licenses, giving them more opportunities for their businesses, she said.
Upstart Kitchen at 4323 W. Fond du Lac Ave.
Many of the clients come from the 53216 ZIP code, she said, although a few come from other communities that lack commercial kitchen space. The clients are diverse, she said, including bakers, caterers and packagers in different stages of business development.
Jones said she hopes the impact will ripple beyond her clients. She wants to see Upstart Kitchen be part of an ecosystem in which the entrepreneurs build their businesses by making better food options available to supportive community members.
Leo Ries, Prism’s executive director, said part of Upstart Kitchen’s model is its emphasis on relationships. Residents of Sherman Park have skills and abilities in the food and beverage space, he said, but they may not be plugged into the networks and relationships that can help their businesses grow.
“That’s one of the needs, or one of the issues, that Upstart is trying to address, is to create those bridges and those relationships and those networks so that their businesses can thrive,” Ries said.
Similar to the Sherman Phoenix, Ries said Upstart Kitchen aims to encourage entrepreneurship and small business growth to help change the narrative about the neighborhood.
Other activity is underway or under consideration around Upstart Kitchen, Ries said. Wince, who bought the facility for the kitchen, also purchased a nearby building to develop a laundromat. Prism is also thinking about whether it can create a green market akin to the Vliet Street Oasis, an urban produce stand Near West Side Partners opened this year.
“We’re using the term the Parklawn Village Project. In other words, to start to think about the neighborhood around Parklawn Assembly of God church as a village center,” Ries said. “How do we, even if we’re either directly initiating projects or we’re supporting other projects that might come along, to build this broader community, where people have a sense of community and identity with that particular neighborhood?”
Harvey shares a similar vision, with Upstart Kitchen representing only the beginning of Prism’s work. He has ideas for a mixed-use development with commercial retail space on the lower level and apartments above.
“We have a vision for creating an ecosystem, a stream or a river that many people, many businesses can thrive in,” Harvey said.
Beyond the incubator, Harvey said, he wants Prism’s efforts to help transform Fond du Lac Avenue into a food corridor.
Chef Caitlin Cullen’s restaurant The Tandem is on Fond du Lac at 18th Street, he notes, and the Fondy Food Center farmer’s market is at 21st Street. The Sherman Phoenix is at 35th and Fond du Lac, and Upstart Kitchen is at 43rd Street. Jamaican restaurant Uppa Yard sits near where Fond du Lac meets Capitol Drive.
“Because there’s so much traffic on Fond du Lac, people are coming and going each day through the city of Milwaukee,” Harvey said. “We want them to be able to stop and see Fond du Lac Avenue as an oasis, to stop and have a meal, pick up groceries.”
The Fondy Food Center farmer’s market on 21st Street.