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15 Minutes With: Tom Keppeler of UpStart Kitchen


March 2019

When he was on the pastoral staff at Elmbrook Church, Tom Keppeler had frequent conversations with Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God in Sherman Park. The two talked about how to connect compassion with ways to create career opportunities in low-wealth communities. A reorganization at Elmbrook led Keppeler to join Parklawn’s PRISM Economic Development Corp. as its executive director. Through PRISM, Keppeler and Harvey began working with others throughout the area to develop Sherman Park’s new food business incubator, UpStart Kitchen, which is on track to open its doors in May via a $50,000 grant from We Raise Foundation and other partnerships and donations. Here, Keppeler tells us more.

What is the ultimate purpose of UpStart Kitchen?

I believe creating meaningful work is the way out of poverty. That’s what starts changing the landscape of our underserved neighborhoods. We know this first year is going to be a learning curve, but we want to serve Sherman Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Why did you choose to develop a food business incubator?

Milwaukee’s really becoming a “foodie town” — actually, it already is. The city could probably use five or six of these kitchens, because there’s great enthusiasm for this. It’s about stimulating entrepreneurship in the city.

How does it work?

You have to become a member client. We’ll sit down and figure out where clients are at — are they a viable business or just starting from scratch? We have a targeted fee structure to be affordable for lower- to moderate-income individuals in Sherman Park and surrounding neighborhoods. They come, they grow, they scale up, and they “graduate” out.

Who do you expect will be using UpStart Kitchen?

We had our first major fundraiser in August, and we had three Milwaukee-based food entrepreneurs cater — an amazing beef tips barbecue, walking tacos and small-order caterers, so those types of businesses as well as food trucks, which have to be connected to a fully licensed kitchen. And there might be just seasonal clients, like an individual who does Christmas cookies.

Tell us about the space, the former Gee’s Clippers building.

It’s a modest-sized kitchen, about 1,300 square feet, right across the street from Parklawn Assembly of God. We have three areas — a bakery, a hot area and a cold prep area. It’s not just a licensed community kitchen that people can rent by the hour, it also has cold and dry storage that people can rent by the week.

As you encourage entrepreneurship, will you support clients in other ways too?

We have a partnership with WWBIC (Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp.), and we’re talking with Milwaukee Public Library business librarians, the Urban Economic Development Corp., and different ethnic Chambers of Commerce. We’re not going to try to invent all this stuff. There are training, mentoring and business services resources already out there. It’s a matter of people knowing how to access them.

Where would you like UpStart Kitchen to be five years from now?

We’d be at full capacity with 25 different clients per month. Hopefully we’ve incubated over 100 businesses, and maybe we’re already in the development stages of a second incubator kitchen in the city.

My FIVE Favorite Things!

1 Skiing in a foot of fresh powder in the mountains out west.

2 I love traveling with my wife, exploring the local food culture.

3 We lived in Romania for 13 years, and I love speaking Romanian.

4 I love biking.

5 Christmas with all of our adult kids at home or at the “no-phone” log cabin. We have three kids,
all in their 20s.


This story ran in the March 2019 issue of: