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Anyone who’s ever kicked around the idea of rolling out a food truck or launching a catering business, but isn’t sure how to get started might want to check out ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.

Theaster Gates’ culinary incubator in downtown Gary, which was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is training its first crop of food-related businesses, about 20 caterers and bakers in all. They’re looking to make a living or at least a side stream of income making southern sweet tea, baking cheesecake and other sweets, or cooking barbecue, creole and comfort food for celebrations.

ArtHouse, in a multicolored lantern-wrapped building at 411 E. 5th across from the U.S. Steel Yard ballpark, also is hosting free community workshops, including the upcoming Catering 101; Food Truck: Start Up 101; Legal Ingredients and Kitchen Poets: Baking With Nikki Patin. Anyone who’s interested can learn about the legal implications of starting a business, how to look for real estate, how to negotiate a lease and other practical matters.

“Gary is considered a food desert,” project manager Michele Larimer said. “We’re looking to teach people how to make food a business with all sorts of culinary programming … The workshops are typically Tuesdays and Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. They’re after work, and we have some fun. There’s a lot of Gary talent.”

ArtHouse is setting up a commercial kitchen entrepreneurs can rent out as needed, hiring a small commercial kitchen staff and soliciting professionals to volunteer advice to hopeful and fledgling food businesses that get training there. It will have an art gallery and cafe.

The bigger picture

It’s one of a number of efforts to use the arts to help revitalize Gary. The city commissioned acclaimed graffiti artist Felix “Flex” Maldonado to paint a four-story Jackson 5 mural downtown. The Calumet Artist Residency got “laborpaste” photos of Harriet Tubman and Eugene Debs slapped up in Gateway Park downtown, and has embarked on the yearlong Gary Poetry Project that will result in a city poem that will be displayed in public.

The Miller Beach Arts and Creative District has covered the Lake Street business district in vibrant murals, hosted gallery exhibits and screened documentaries. The Nelson Algren Society threw together an annual Algren festival and is putting together a museum for the famed writer in Miller. Indiana University Northwest is building a $33 million Arts and Science building with two theaters. The Heat Light and Water Project, led by artist/educator Jan Tichy, has pursued a number of projects, including artist-designed streetlights, a story collection initiative and photo clubs to document changes and disappearances in the city.

Gary Mayor Karen-Freeman Wilson said good food and public arts would help bring life to the city's hub. She said ArtHouse is a catalyst for the community that provides career opportunities, particularly for "talented young residents pursuing careers in the food industry as chefs and business owners."

“As we work to revitalize our city as a destination for business development, we look for new and innovative ideas," Freeman-Wilson said. "Additionally when we look at our vacant structures, we find that many of them are not necessarily candidates for demolition, but yet very much appropriate for re-use for business development. The Gary ArtHouse project is a prime example that falls right in line with our revitalization efforts for our downtown area."

Cooking up success

Currently, ArtHouse has two main initiatives: weekly Culinary Exploration Programming events that are free and a Culinary Business Incubator that educates food-based entrepreneurs through a series of classes, Larimer said.

“There are 20 participants,” she said. “When we started we thought five people or so would be a success. We’ve been pleased to see how many entrepreneurs there are in Gary and the Northwest Indiana area.”

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The classes cater to those who are looking into starting a food business, those who work a full-time job and have a side business cooking out of a home or church kitchen and those who need help getting fully licensed and credentialed.

Hopeful entrepreneurs listen to lectures, take part in group activities and do homework in the 15,000-square-foot building, which is also home to the barbecue restaurant Mama Pearl's. They also get one-on-one consulting.

“We look over the business plan, food costs, the nitty-gritty,” Larimer said.

At the end of the program, likely in April, the ArtHouse plans to do a Pitch Night where the entrepreneurs will be able to pitch business plans to a number of local bankers and hopefully secure financing. ArtHouse may also have pop-up events in parks where they can serve their food to the public.

The ties that bind

The close-knit participants seem to be forming bonds that might lead to future collaborations, such as caterers and bakers doing dinners together, Larimer said.

“One of the things we didn’t anticipate is that this would create a community among the participants,” she said.

After the classes are finished, ArtHouse hopes to continue to provide ongoing support and resources as its graduates try to establish businesses. It’s looking for attorneys, marketers, public relations specialists, accountants, real estate agents and other professionals to offer pro bono advice to the food entrepreneurs.

Miller resident Katie Bohn is enrolled in the Culinary Business Incubator, looking to start a catering company called Ham & Bone that will cook creative comfort food for special events. She said it’s been hugely beneficial for her and her business partner.

“Taking that first step into actually starting our business has been daunting, so we’ve just been rolling those ideas around between us,” she said. “The CBI has been teaching us how to take all those ideas and mold them into an actual plan. Not a set-in-concrete plan, but a fluid one. On Post-it notes. Because it’ll change.”

That realization and knowledge has been freeing and motivating, Bohn said.

“We realize we don’t have to have all the answers now,” she said. “We don’t have to be absolutely perfect right out of the box. We can get up and running first, and just adapt as we need to down the road.”

For more information, visit arthousegary.com.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.