Friday, April 6, 2012

Steel Magnolia Keeps Cooking

Sash Gardner is busy dumping ingredients into large buckets to whip up another batch of his Gardner Gourmet salsa. He's making around ninety pounds of it today, the same as he does each week. After a couple of hours he'll be finished with making his four versions of salsa, packaging and labeling them, and then he'll be off to deliver them to Corti Bros, Taylor's Market, and Compton's Market. He's able to sell his salsa in grocery stores because he has prepared them with proper permits in a fully licensed commercial kitchen - Steel Magnolia Commercial Kitchen.

I often have business ideas that I never act upon out of fear and lack of funds. About five years ago I thought about the idea of opening a commercial kitchen in Sacramento only to find out someone had already done so. I read an article in the Sacramento Bee when Steel Magnolia opened in November of 2009.  The person who was brave enough to go through with her dream was Gail von Huene.

Even though I was aware of Steel Magnolia I had no idea where it was. It turns out I've driven by it hundreds of times since it sits on the corner of 16th and G streets in a rather nondescript building. 


Gail was waiting for me while Sash was busy making his salsa in Kitchen 2. She lets me in the front door which has a combination lock. Steel Magnolia is available for rent 24/7 and so the combination allows access to clients without having sets of keys floating around town or getting lost. Off to the left are the kitchens and to my right I see the dining/event room.

Gail gives me a short tour before we sit down to talk. We start with the kitchens themselves. One large room is split in two to create Kitchens 1 and 2. Both have matching 6-burner gas ranges, plenty of workspace, and lots of pots, pans, and a mixer each. At one end stands a rack of shared tools and a shared 20 quart mixer.  There are walk-in and standing refrigerators and large convection ovens as well.


The kitchens can be rented separately or together if the event or need is large enough. Often smaller caterers with large events will need the extra space that Steel Magnolia provides. Rarely are both kitchens rented by different people at the same time, but it's often fun when they are. Cooking classes are also offered here, most via The Learning Exchange and some offered by Gail herself. Maybe you want to host a party or event that you can't accommodate in your own home. You can rent out Steel Magnolia for weddings, dinners, etc.

One type of even that is often done here and always peaks my interest are the pop-up restaurants. Pop-ups are basically temporary restaurants. Pop-ups happen when a chef is without a restaurant and wants to put together a special menu featured at a temporary location for a few nights. Before Pajo Bruich took over the kitchen at Lounge on 20, he was doing pop-ups and classes at Steel Magnolia. (Gail tells me that there is going to be a pop-up dinner in May featuring game meats. I'll be checking that one out!)
Rental prices vary depending on the event/need and frequency. A basic price would be $100 for the first three hours and $35 for each additional hour. Contact Gail to negotiate. 
We walk around the back and Gail points out the proper sanitation/washing areas for doing all the dishes. There's a laundry room to wash all the towels and dishrags and a dry storage area for people to leave some items if they are regular customers. We finally reach the dining/event space to sit down and chat. 

dining room
It turns out Gail and I have a lot in common. Gail prefers to bake versus cook and we both admit to not having the best tasting tongues - able to discern flavors and spices in dishes or the ability to think of flavor combinations that will work well. Gail admits that she's learned so much from the chefs that use her facility. She'll often try a flavor combination or dish that she would never have thought of or made herself.

dry storage area


Gail's culinary journey began a decade ago when she was inspired by a friend's pastries to look into formal culinary training. She took classes at Cosumnes River and American River Colleges and ended up with a baking certificate in 2007. She soon realized that she needed access to a commercial kitchen if she was to cater properly and legally. If she was having trouble finding a clean, quality kitchen space, others must be too. 

Steel Magnolia's timing was both good and bad. There was a definite need for her facility but there was also the start of the decline of the economy. Through the downturn Steel Magnolia survived while other facilities have either closed or are up for sale. Gail admits that the experience was not what she had expected. She had definite ideas and plans on how the business would run and soon learned that she needed to be more adaptive and let days come one at a time.

Owning any business can be stressful, but Gail admits that she does love the benefits: being a resource and giving back to the community in a facility that is much needed in the area. She enjoys the camaraderie of  the Sacramento food community and learning from all the wonderful chefs and foodies in the area. She feels blessed for the rewards of the business and loves that it is hers alone - no partners.

Before I leave we go back into Kitchen 2 to see Sash as he packs up his salsa and prepares to make his deliveries. Gail has brought a bag of chips so that I can taste them. Sash has the typical flavors: mild, medium, hot, and chipotle. We taste the medium and the chipotle and I like the textures very much - not too chunky and yet not pureed. The chipotle has a nice smokey flavor without being hot and the medium is nice and fresh. I happily take some home with me for later.


As Gail walks me out we chat about the plan to have a food bloggers potluck at the facility so that others can see what Steel Magnolia has to offer. With so few facilities like it available, it's good that Steel Magnolia keeps on cooking.



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