“I was infatuated with the idea of working for the Secret Service or CIA while I was in high school,” said Rebecca Peress, the founder and CEO of SWAP Foods. “I wanted to be undercover. It was literally all I wanted.”
Peress’ career path changed during college when she took a last-minute summer job assisting the food and beverage director of her parents’ golf club. She fell in love with the world of hospitality – more specifically the food industry. It was also during this time that she learned she had several auto-immune disorders and food allergies.
After switching her major from international studies to business, she graduated from George Washington University and started working for a local restaurant group. Still struggling with her health issues, Peress’ was also spending time in her kitchen creating dishes that wouldn’t make her sick, but still tasted good. A childhood love for Eggo waffles led her to develop her own waffle recipe comprised entirely of vegetables, and without any of the flour, eggs, or sugar traditionally used in waffles.
Peress soon discovered that not only did she enjoy her veggie-based waffles, but so did her friends, co-workers and family members. This gave her the idea of marketing her product, but she had no idea how to go about doing so.
Luckily for Peress, she didn’t have to look very far for help. Just down the street from her NoMa apartment was Union Kitchen, a food business accelerator designed to help people just like her.
With her Swapples in hand, Peress made a pitch for membership to Union Kitchen and was accepted; she began operations out of its new 17,000-square-foot facility in Ivy City in January 2016.
Her membership entitled her to work space, equipment and storage, as well as the ability to take advantage of Union Kitchen’s relationships with suppliers and distribution channels, which was a significant savings of time and money over versus having to purchase and develop them on her own.
Peress wasted no time getting started. Within a matter of weeks -- and lots of 12-hour work days, she had Swapples fully developed and with the help of Union Kitchen’s distribution network, was meeting with local retailers and getting her product on shelves.
Fast forward two years and Peress is preparing to work with one of the nation’s largest food distributors and expects to be in a second region by the end of 2018 and national by 2020.
“When you are starting out, a place like [Union Kitchen] is crucial for a food product," said Peress. "The fact that it exists is why I am where I am today.”
A Tasty Record of Success
Peress’ growth and success is very similar to that of many of the 400+ members that Union Kitchen has served since it opened in December 2012, when it became the city’s first food business accelerator.
“Union Kitchen was created because I wanted to see the awesome food businesses that were developing have a better opportunity to succeed,” said Cullen Gilchrist, co-founder and CEO of Union Kitchen.
Gilchrist is very proud of the role that Union Kitchen has played in cementing D.C.'s food scene as one of the best in the nation. And he has the numbers to support him, as Union Kitchen is responsible for more than 600 member products getting into stores, including 150 on the shelves of Whole Foods, more than $250 million in member sales and more than 1,500 jobs created.
Many of the region’s leading food businesses -- Compass Coffee, Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., Bright Greens Smoothie Shakers, and Ice Cream Jubilee -- got their start at Union Kitchen.
In addition to its commercial kitchen and work space in Ivy City, Union Kitchen now also operates two retail locations (538 3rd St. NE and 1251 9th St. NW) stocked with a combination of local and national brands, including hundreds of food and beverage products made by current and alumni members. Later this year it will open locations at the One Franklin Square office building at 13th and K Streets NW, and at the newly redeveloped Ballston Quarter mall.
From 5-7 p.m. on Saturday March 3, Union Kitchen will host its Meet the Makers event. This open house at its Ivy City facility is a unique opportunity for attendees to interact with Union Kitchen’s current members. There will be more than 50 participating food and beverage businesses including Dorjee Momo, Snacklins, Swapples, Cosmic Juice, Eat Pizza, Sip City, Sasya, The Fancy Schmancy Co., Berg Bites, and Caribe. Tickets are $19.99 when purchased in advance and a limited number of tickets will be available at the door for $29.99. Your ticket includes samples from all vendors as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage samples.