Photo by Edward Smith Mike Cook calls himself a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. He opened Pro-Culinary with Matthew McComas and George and Adam Temple.
Written by Edward Smith
The pitch Mike Cook at Pro Culinary gives to newly graduated culinary students is they have two options if they want to continue in their field. One, get a corporate job working $13 an hour, he says, or the second, open their own restaurant with $500,000 that might not last a year.
Wanting to provide a third option, Cook and his business partners opened a full-service commercial and commissary kitchen.
Pro Culinary officially opened its doors Thursday in Downtown Fresno. Cook hopes the 2,300 square-foot building provides a space for the “middle-third” of chefs and caterers who’ve outgrown the cottage industry, but aren’t yet ready for their own space.
Members rent out professional kitchen space and a brick-laden, modern tasting room for clients who want to take their business to the next level. There is cutlery and plenty of serving dishes available for events. They have refrigerators, mobile stoves and ovens, and enough space for two clients and eight staff to be working out of the kitchen at the same time, with another four kitchens “coming soon” – once the City of Fresno approves the new additions.
Everything in Pro Culinary was designed with a purpose, says Cook. The tables and the dividers between them are all on wheels to easily rearrange for events. Retractable extension cords hang from the ceiling for a chef needing a stick blender in a pinch. They’ve even plumbed in lines in the sink to quickly dispense water and detergent in the correct ratios for cleaning by Department of Health standards.
“Nobody has this kind of firepower in the Valley,” Cook said.
What Cook calls their “flagship” is a tasting room that can seat around 40 people comfortably. Members can use the space for anything from pop-ups restaurants to giving brides-to-be a place to sample a caterer’s food.
“You can bring your clients right here, you can cook right there,” Cook said.
It was there that Pro Culinary held its soft opening on Feb. 9 where friends and family of the partners arrived as well as some notable names including Craig Scharton, who is known for his work with the Downtown Fresno Partnership, and H. Spees, a member of Mayor Lee Brand’s administration.
In 2012, Cook said he and business partner Matthew McComas began working on the idea of a commercial kitchen in the Central Valley.
Cook was a teacher for Fresno Unified School District and McComas was a physician’s assistant. They met at a restaurant in Clovis and got to talking about their experiences in the culinary industry. Despite all the background each of them had in restaurants, they both concluded the money was in catering.
Catering is an easy way for chefs to get into the industry with little overhead, said Wayne Fox, division manager of environmental health with the Fresno County Department of Health. But in order to serve events legally, one of the requirements is that chefs work out of approved spaces. The same goes for food trucks.
In Fresno County, there are about 460 food trucks ranging from hot-dog carts to 10-wheeler full service vehicles. Additionally, there are 116 caterers in the county beside the restaurateurs who are already approved to serve outside their space, according to the Health Department.
Getting the idea off the ground took the duo six years, with plenty of road bumps.
“Every time we got close, we ran out of money,” Cook said.
To fundraise, Cook and McComas opened up Trendy Pasta Co. on Mariposa Street in Downtown Fresno. With the restaurant they paid rent, Cook said, and with their catering business, they grew a nest egg.
But soon after, they found investors in George and Adam Temple, who own the space where Pro Culinary operates.
Cook bills himself as a “culinary agent,” and his ideal client is the professional who wants to move a step above working in people’s backyards serving hot dogs without a license, he says. These are the people “turning down money because they don’t have a facility.”
The agent part of his job includes farming out potential clients for members. Going out to bridal and trade shows are great places to find customers, Cook says. For certain members he even offers plans that include dish washing, saving people hours of work for which they would otherwise have to pay. He offers help developing menus and price points for people who haven’t gotten that far in their business plan.
“Just because you’re a great chef doesn’t mean you have a great business acumen,” said Cook.
“I’m here to fill that gap,” he added.