Al Goldberg might start small, but he dreams big.
Growing up in Windsor, Connecticut, his mother let him join her at the stove when he was just a toddler. Goldberg fondly remembers eating dinner as a family nearly every night and meals with grandparents at Jewish holidays that brought traditional Eastern European foods to the table. Despite the fond memories, Goldberg reveals he was not drawn to Eastern European cuisine. Instead, he would watch Julia Child and Martin Yan’s Yan Can Cook on TV and experiment with French, Chinese and nearly any other cuisine.
“Even when my extended family may not have been getting along very well, the food and the Jewish holidays would bring us together. Somehow we would value the food and value the effort to make it,” Goldberg recalls.
In college, Goldberg started working in DC restaurants just to pay the bills. Then he spent 14 years on the business side of a small corporate catering firm, helping it grow to one of the largest in DC.
At that point, Goldberg and two partners dreamt of opening their own catering firm, but after two years of searching for the right kitchen space, the partners moved on to other things. Goldberg, however, was still commiserating with more and more people about the lack of catering space in DC. That’s when he decided to “pivot,” as he says, to building a food incubator with shared kitchen space and a focus on fostering a real food community.
That was 2012. Fast-forward through a rewritten business plan, an SBA loan, another year of looking for the space and “a lot of commercial real estate brokers fired along the way.” Finally, an old blighted warehouse in northeast DC was found. “The space came out of nowhere,” Goldberg says, “with everything we needed including two metro stops nearby, two loading docks, lots of utilities and zoning for commercial manufacturing.” It took another chaotic year for permitting and to build out the space, making it “as green as we could afford to be at the time.”
Finally, in October 2014, Goldberg’s big dream, Mess Hall, opened. Now he spends his days helping other people’s big dreams come true as well.
Mess Hall is a hive of activity with four commercial kitchens large enough to share and a 10,000-square-foot event space for weddings, b’nai mitzvot, cocktail parties and fundraisers like the pop-up dinner Goldberg recently sponsored to raise $10,000 for a generator for a village in Nepal during earthquake recovery efforts. It also features a kitchen with a great setup for demonstrations.
On any given day, companies of varying sizes such as True Syrups & Garnishes, Capital Kombucha, Amazing Cakes and Bullfrog Bagels can be found preparing their products for market in kitchen space shared with, among others, Farm to Feast Catering and Wholesome Tummies healthy school lunches.
For Goldberg, who seems to have a knack for getting people to work together, the collaborative community that is being built at Mess Hall is even more important than the facility itself. “I wanted it to be more than just stainless steel tables,” he explains. To do this, he made Mess Hall a membership-based organization—currently with just over 30 members and a goal of something around 60 at capacity, depending on the size of the businesses.
In addition, Goldberg is quick to use his considerable knowledge and relationships built over years in the food business to help his members connect with everything from financing to signage and other vital resources. One example is Annette Ryan of O Earth Creamery and Bakehouse.
When Ryan came to Mess Hall a few months after it opened, Goldberg saw a passionate and talented baker who wanted to go out on her own, but had no assets and little business experience. With Goldberg’s help and connections, as well as her own commitment and drive, she secured financing (a Kiva Zip loan), a kitchen (Mess Hall), a place to sell (Dupont Fresh Farm Market) and even a tent for her market space…going from a dream to a viable business in just five weeks. And her business is going so well that Ryan just upgraded from a nighttime to a 24-hour membership in order to increase production.
Goldberg’s passion for creating new opportunities to promote small local businesses and discover new culinary talents led to the establishment of Launch Pad with project partners Union Market and chef Ris Lacoste. The winner of this year’s second-annual culinary competition, announced July 11, was Arepa Zone, currently a food truck with Venezuelan fare operated by owners Gabriela Febres and Ali Arellano. Their first-place win got them, among other benefits to help grow their business, a membership in Mess Hall and a six-to-12-month lease for a fully-built space in Union Market.
Launch Pad involves three months of pitching, sampling and planning. It is what Goldberg calls “a food jump, which is when somebody takes a concept and makes it self-sustainable.” At Mess Hall, Goldberg has created a place where hard work, strong relationships and opportunities for food jumps are making big dreams come true.
Top photo: Artwork in the Mess Hall loading dock. All photos by Dori Phaff.