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Cooking up socially palatable ideas at The Kitchen

Cooking up socially palatable ideas at The Kitchen
Business-focused shared space is exploding, but what about the non-for-profits? There's a new social enterprise space in town. Vaughn Davis pops into The Kitchen for a bite.

the kitchen shared space coworking social innovationBusiness-focused shared space is exploding, but what about the non-for-profits? There's a new social enterprise space in town. Vaughn Davis pops into The Kitchen for a bite.

There’s a jumble of salads on the bench, and the odd loaf of bread that looks like it has more in common with something an elephant keeper might face than the fluffy white stuff you might wrap a sizzled sausage in. There aren’t many sausages in sight anyway, and my meaty contribution to the table stands out as a lone fleshy beacon amid a sea of vegetables.

It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for the weekly shared lunch at recently launched Auckland social enterprise co-working space, The Kitchen. The meal is a highlight of the week for the 30 or so people who work here, and most of them seem to have turned up today. The crowd changes each week though, so the lunch always starts with introductions around the table, followed by a karakia (yes, it’s that kind of place) before tucking in.

The mix of regulars and newcomers means there’s plenty to talk about, and I manage to meet a few Kitcheneers (as they call each other) over lunch. While there’s a common thread of social good running through their projects, the Kitcheneers I meet are all working on quite different things – leading to an intellectual cross pollination that forms a big part of the appeal of both The Kitchen and the weekly lunch.

Karen Knighton Photography Karen Knighton Photography Karen Knighton Photography Karen Knighton Photography Karen Knighton Photography

Simon, for example, is from Innovate Change, consulting to public and private sector organisations and using business principles to generally help make the world a better place. His current project involves reviewing one to one foster care programmes for a non governmental organisation in Wellington. Other projects his team has worked on include a programme to reduce alcohol related harm within the gay community in Auckland and a youth development programme for 22 Pacific Island countries.

Sitting across from Simon is Emily from Urban Pantry, a crowd that creates edible gardens for private and commercial spaces like cafés, offices and community land. I’m quite possibly nibbling Emily’s greens as she tells me that, like many Kitcheneers, she’s a part timer and only uses a desk here one day a week (usually a Tuesday to coincide with the shared lunch). Emily was on the waiting list before The Kitchen launched, so has been involved since before day one.

Everyone has a different story and the more I hear, the more worthless my years spent spruiking soap powder for The Man feel …

Robbie returned from Oxford to work on Ushahidi – a mapping platform that visualises conflicts and disasters, such as the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. From his desk overlooking Grey Lynn to the Waitakeres, he collaborates with others in the US, Canada and South Korea. Juliet’s project, Rekindle, turns waste wood into amazing furniture (see the latest issue of Idealog, #42, for more on that).

It’s when you combine that – the waste wood furniture, the disaster mapping platform, the edible gardens and all the rest – that interesting stuff begins to happen and it’s exactly what inspired Kitchen founder Murray Sheard to set the co-working space up in February this year. Murray’s an academic by trade, and has taught philosophy and business ethics at the University of Auckland. He also consults to business and government around anti-corruption, but agrees with my possibly disrespectful suggestion that in one of the least corrupt countries in the world, local customers aren’t exactly beating down his door. Which is just as well, since that means he had time to commit to the 12-month slog of setting up The Kitchen.

The idea came, Murray says, from an experience in in London. He first worked in a co-working space for not-for-profits but he found zero collaboration. When he started wandering around and saying hi to people – as Kiwis do – it was a bit of a revelation to the Londoners, who said ‘no one has ever done that before’. Then he found The Hub, an ethical co-working space in London which was home to 30 or so social businesses. The Hub was different – it had a positive vibe and an openness to collaboration.

Back in New Zealand he soon saw that while business-focused shared space was everywhere, not for profits and social businesses were pretty much out in the cold, so the process that led to The Kitchen began. And it started (sorry, Kevin Costner fans) not with the space, but with the occupants. For Murray, the ‘if they come, you will build it’ approach is at the heart of The Kitchen’s success so far. Long before looking at venues, he sought out a bunch of people he thought might want to use it, and worked with them to understand what kind of place they wanted. Late last year they’d found the perfect place and were ready to move in, when at the last minute the owner pulled the pin. For Murray it almost meant the end of the road, but then the next day they found the top storey views-forever space that now houses The Kitchen and signed up on the spot.

The Kitchen has been open since February, and while some days see just a few people at their desks or using the shared meeting rooms, others see every one of the 30 chairs filled. The Kitchen’s menu offers options from full time tenancy down to casual visits, and worthy Kitcheneers who can’t afford to pay can apply for a hand from the Kitchen Trust.

After only a few months of operation, Murray is already working on what comes next – offering more business-related benefits to Kitcheneers, including professional mentoring and other ways to help make world-changing ideas come true, one whole-grain-bread and organic microgreens sandwich at a time.