Bella Karakis is the co-founder and CEO of e.terra, a flexible commercial kitchen with two locations in East Harlem. Prior to e.terra, she was a co-founder of a shared commercial kitchen and food hall concept, as well as co-founder of a mobile hospitality company with 2 food truck operations, in the DC Metro area. She received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from Touro Law. An avid life-long learner and believer that knowledge is power, Bella strongly believes in supporting the community that she works and lives in, through volunteering and mentorship.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I want to start out by asking how you got interested in commercial kitchens, especially in East Harlem?
Bella Karakis: e.terra is a flexible commercial kitchen with 2 locations based in Harlem that provides two core services: on demand kitchen workspace and support services to all [Food and Beverage] F&B brands, customizable to the needs of each food brand and available 24/7. We launched our first location in June 2021. As a food entrepreneur with two separate ventures in the past, I myself was challenged by the lack of available commercial kitchens, and I understand first-hand the challenges faced by small food businesses. First, for my biscotti line while living in Stamford, Connecticut, and then, years later, for a food truck operation in Northern Virginia, I needed a commercial kitchen to support my own food businesses, and neither location had a kitchen within an hour’s driving distance from our base of operations. In both cases, it truly impacted my business, making it impossible to launch and grow the biscotti line and forcing us to use our home kitchen out of desperation to support our food truck operation. My own experience both educated me and made it imperative that I focus my attention on providing the comprehensive solutions that the food and beverage industry needs.
Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as an attorney guided your interest in food businesses?
I am an experienced trademark attorney and have represented clients in many industries, including food and beverage, entertainment and fashion. I especially loved advising and mentoring small food businesses and always stood in awe of the amazing creativity behind every brand.
But my interest in the food business is not solely stemming from my legal career. I always had a special affinity for the F&B space because of my family background, growing up with a grandmother who was an amazing cook and baker, and a family spread across four continents as a result of wars and migration, whose culture always dictated the central hub of our gatherings to be around a dinner table. I can safely speak for five generations (now on to number 6!) when I say that we have always been, and continue to be, obsessed with food, nutrition and exploring culture through food.
You previously co-founded a shared commercial kitchen space and other food businesses in Washington, D.C. What is different about this type of business in New York City? What is the same?
Yes, I was the co-founder of a shared commercial kitchen with two locations in northern Virginia and one in NYC. We provided kitchen and storage rentals in all locations, with a food hall component including kiosk rentals in two of those locations. I have been able to apply the lessons learned in that prior brand of shared kitchen to e.terra.
e.terra is the only flexible commercial kitchen in the NYC metro area that is available to our members 24/7 and the only one that can fully customize solutions for each member’s needs, whether they be a small start-up food brand that needs business development and training, a large ghost kitchen operation that needs logistics and delivery support, or a large corporate client such as Resy seeking to bring a unique dining experience to its exclusive clientele in NYC and needing a large kitchen to support its back-of-house operations. Through our partnership with the Stanley Isaacs Center, e.terra provides culinary training interns paid by the Center to our members free of charge, to help reduce employment costs for small businesses. We also actively promote member services and food through our events program as well as through our social media and community engagement, bringing business opportunities to our members. Through our Cares Program, the e.terra team volunteers on a monthly basis with various charitable organizations, such as God’s Love We Deliver, City Harvest, Rethink Food, Encore Community Services, Project Eats and Union Settlement, to support food insecurity initiatives, such as food harvesting, rescue, prep, delivery and service.
As you mentioned earlier, e.terra has two locations in Harlem (one on Third Avenue, and another in the former Hot Bread Kitchen location in La Marqueta), not too far from the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. Why did you choose East Harlem? What about East Harlem is unique for this type of space? What have you learned about the community since starting e.terra here?
I think Harlem chose us! We had been looking for an already-existing large open-format kitchen that we could take over and retrofit for a space that could flex and accommodate multiple businesses for some time when we were introduced to a caterer based in Harlem who had been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and we wound up taking over their space, thus helping them exit their long-term lease. Having settled on our first location, we realized how essential our services are to supporting the local economy in Harlem by providing 24/7, reasonably-priced, accessible space, allowing small businesses to launch at minimal cost in less than a month while joining a supportive, collaborative community, which is so essential for the success of a small business. The Harlem community is a vibrant one with the greatest cultural and culinary diversity of any neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC. We have been privileged to support more than 60 businesses, on both a short- and long-term basis but have also been able to support well known entities such as Resy, Amex, Netflix, NBC, and the Today Show, as well as restaurants such as Pink Taco and Llama Inn, for a vast variety of kitchen needs, from interviews to filming to special events, staff training and menu testing. Helping customize solutions in the kitchen space is what we do!