World Class Kitchen
Mesa Komal’s shared kitchen space houses a slew of international cooks preparing home-spun dishes for Music City.
A brightly colored mosaic mural rises up above Nolensville Pike to Casa Azafran, the colorful heart of South Nashville’s international community. Inside, nine nonprofits under the umbrella of Conexión Américas’ offer services from English lessons to daycare to accounting for the benefit of Nashville’s newcomers.
Most intriguing for food lovers is Mesa Komal, a shared commercial kitchen for Nashville’s budding food entrepreneurs. Mesa, or ‘table’ in Spanish, and Komal, ‘community’ in Kurdish, poignantly expresses the project’s mission: for people of all backgrounds to come together, learn from each other, and inspire Nashville’s next food trends through its eclectic lineup of new restaurants, brands, and food trucks.
The morning we visited, Maria Elva and her brother-in-law, Santos, were making the pork filling for their empanadas; Javeneh Hemmat was climbing a step ladder to stir garbanzo beans for her hummus; and Guenievre Milliner was assembling the Paris deLuxe (baguette, butter, Parisian ham, and French Brie), “authentically French sandwiches”. Yep, that’s France, the Middle East and Mexico all in process in one kitchen. Rosa Martha Mulanax, the Culinary Incubator Manager, looks on smiling. Rosa, with serious culinary chops of her own, is the perfect guardian of these ‘incubating’ food companies, helping with certifications, marketing, and recipe testing.
For these entrepreneurs, Mesa Komal is a godsend. Sharing kitchen space lowers barriers to entry, enabling these food start-ups to start up faster and achieve goals they once might have thought impossible. They have come from different continents with wide-ranging culinary expertise and varying goals for their businesses, yet they share the same American Dream—a dream Mesa Komal helps people realize every day.
HUMMUS CHICK ilovehummuschick.com
There are two things you should know about Javeneh Hemmat: She has a head for business and a tummy for hummus. Pairing the one with the other she launched her company, Hummus Chick, which is on its way to becoming a national brand.
Javeneh came from the United Arab Emirates to study business. The absence of Middle Eastern flavors in the dining hall inspired her to teach herself to cook her own comfort foods. Cooking soon became an obsession. Over the next several years, the idea of starting a food business tugged at her. She studied the food scene, watching for trends and learning from vendors at farmer’s markets. Serendipitously, she met the then-manager of Mesa Komal, who invited her for a tour. “The light, the colors, the space—it was an easy decision,” recalls Javaneh. Today, you can find her at Mesa Komal tending to a turkey fryer and a tamale pot full of over 40 pounds of dried chickpeas, which will be whirled into 150 pounds of creamy hummus daily.
Though the hummus speaks for itself, it is Javeneh’s innovative business mind that propels her business forward. Farmers’ markets, she says, is where she does her market research. She collects feedback from customers and follows up the next week. She is always hunting for inroads to more customers, partnering with juice bars, coffee shops, and even the Belcourt theater, where she is reimagining the movie snacking experience. She has expanded her offerings to include a snack-sized package and—coming soon—a new Mediterranean spice line. With all of these initiatives she seeks to exhibit authentic Middle Eastern flavors, use the best local ingredients, support farmers, and always keep the American audience in mind.
LOOK FOR HUMMUS CHICK’S hummus at Produce Place, Turnip Truck, Whole Foods, Hendersonville Produce, and numerous juice bars around town.
When Maria Elva’s children told her she should start a food truck with Santos, her brother-in-law, she thought they were joking. She, a homemaker, and Santos, a construction worker, knew little about starting a business, let alone what to do with a food truck. But the consensus was that Maria was born to cook, and that Santos, who had restaurant experience, would make for a great business partner.
So the in-law duo set out to find a space for preparing their famous fajitas, enchiladas, and empanadas. When the search proved harder than expected, they remembered hearing about Mesa Komal on the radio and came to take a look. It had everything they needed: affordable space, help with permits, and a Spanish-speaking director. And so La Estrellita was born.
The business began slowly. On their first day they ambitiously planned to pack up the truck and leave by 9 A.M., but because of their lack of experience, they didn’t end up leaving until 11 A.M. Santos remembers, laughing, “We got in the car and realized we didn’t know where we were going!” They had planned everything but their route to customers. Since then, they have found a niche serving lunches at construction sites. New customers daily flock to their Lunchera, or small food truck, through word of mouth. La Estrellita now serves nearly 200 people daily. It is knowing these customers depend on them, they say, that keeps them motivated in their work. For them, it is all about serving the community. They are so popular that occasionally they have to rush back to the kitchen to make more food. “Some days,” Maria confesses, “We ask ourselves, ‘Why did we ever start this?’ But most of the time, it’s really good.” Coming this far has emboldened them. Who knows? Five years from now we could all be dining at La Estrellita, the restaurant. Anything is possible.
LITTLE GOURMAND littlegourmand.us
French native Guenievre Milliner had her heart set on starting a French market, but she didn't know where. As a Montreal resident, she knew the market was over-saturated with French food, and that other east coast cities were too expensive. That's when she and her family decided to move to Nashville, no doubt guided by their love of country music. For two years Guenievre planned her Nashville business from Montreal. She and her family moved to Nashville in October, 2014 and opened Little Gourmand one month later.
In no time customers began requesting prepared food. An avid cook, Guenievre relished the challenge but knew her biggest obstacle would be lack of space. The answer presented itself when Javeneh Hemmat, “the Hummus Chick”, told Guenievre about Mesa Komal. It met her needs beautifully: she could prepare sandwiches in the morning and drive the ten minutes to her shop, back in time for the lunch crowd. Guenievre debuted the sandwich service in September 2015. It now makes up 25% of her business.
In addition to the new revenue, preparing sandwiches has proven rewarding in several ways. Running the shop had been a lonely struggle, Guenievre says, but now that she is rubbing elbows with other cooks, she has lots of activity and encouragement. Additionally, she relishes the authenticity she is able to offer in her prepared food. She imports all of her ingredients—even her bread dough—directly from France. She loves using these to craft new and authentic food experiences for her customers. She remembers fondly feeding a group of middle-schoolers who, much to her surprise, not only tried escargot but liked it! For Guenievre, preparing food is not just a passion; it is a love language. “I make each sandwich as if it were for my own son or daughter,” she says. “I want all of my food to be as good as possible.”
Guenievre’s sandwiches are so good, in fact, that customers are clamoring for quiche, and soup, and breakfast, and a second location. One step at a time, she says, for the Little Gourmand.