Crunch time is on as the founder of Puddin’ pushes ahead on her latest project. Toyin Alli has almost all the permits, licenses and inspections needed to open Puddin’s Community Kitchen. Renovations are nearing completion inside the nearly 3,000-square-foot building in Capitol Heights, Maryland.
“I’ll be renting out kitchen space to other small businesses that are in need of commercial kitchen space. I’ll use it for my own kitchen space, and then I’m also opening up a carryout,” says Alli. The new community kitchen expected to open in February 2020 gives Alli her first opportunity to be the landlord of a brick and mortar space. She already operates two vendor stalls and two food trucks in Washington, D.C.
Alli’s knowledge of the food business makes her a qualified salesperson for attracting entrepreneurs interested in leasing kitchen space. “It’s been like a journey. I bought the building in 2017, so as you can imagine, it’s been a long time that I’ve been working on this project,” says Puddin’s owner. “I’m just really happy that it is nearing the end.”
One Step at a Time
The beginning started with an idea Alli had in 2005 to sell her now-legendary brown butter bread pudding at Eastern Market in the nation’s capital. The presence of another dessert merchant kept her from being accepted as a vendor. So, she put that passion for selling her food on a back burner and completed a master’s degree program in finance at New York University.
With a new job as a financial auditor at Amtrack in D.C., Alli gave the Eastern Market business venture another try with a revised concept. “I applied with a more diverse menu, not just desserts or bread pudding, but also gumbo and shrimp and grits. I got in, and I was really surprised.”
Less than a year later, Alli dared to quit her full-time job and put all her energy into the weekend Puddin’ business, moving forward one step at a time. “I always said I would respond to the demand,” says Alli. “If it got big enough where I got pushed out of my house, then I would move the business to an incubator kitchen. If I started to outgrow the incubator kitchen, then I would pursue something else.”
By 2016, Alli could no longer make her “Divine Comfort Food” in her home kitchen. She leased space in an incubator and started working on her vision for a food truck. She saved up to buy what Alli describes as a “raggedy” vehicle that once belonged to an ice cream vendor. The $15,000 to $20,000 required to turn it into a Puddin’ food truck would have to wait. “It’s just at the time I didn’t have that all at once, so I would work at the market and make enough money to buy a stove. The next week I would get the hood.”
Growing DC Puddin’
Sizable student loans, an aversion to starting her business deep in debt and the challenges of obtaining financing contributed to Alli’s careful approach to expansion. She also recognized that there was much to learn about operating a thriving food business. “You encounter good people, and you encounter people that are taking advantage of the fact that you don’t know. A lot of that time was spent navigating through those waters,” says the D.C. entrepreneur.
Today, Puddin’ is selling Southern comfort food seven days a week at Union Market and most weekends at Eastern Market, as well as from two food trucks, at local farmers’ markets and at festivals. The menu is small but attracts loyal fans who line up for the gumbo, shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, wild blue catfish or oyster po’boys, shrimp etouffee and bread pudding. Alli loves it for more than personal freedom and financial benefits. “People gather around food. It really does bring people together. Anywhere you go around the world, you can talk about food with somebody.”
The self-taught cook also loves the way patrons’ eyes light up when they taste her Louisiana and West African-inspired food. Alli prefers to serve her gumbo and other dishes without roux, the browned flour and fat thickening gravy found in recipes based on French and other melting pot influences. “Original gumbo from West Africa has none of those things in it. It’s a simple soup of okra, meat and tomatoes.”
Alli grew up in California and Michigan, but her mother’s foster parents were from the South, and her father was born in Nigeria. She and her mom experiment to create recipes for Puddin’ while paying close attention to freshness, sustainability and traditions closely aligned with African slave ancestors. “I really like the stories about these Africans who were here against their will, and they are trying to make food similar to what they had back in Africa,” Alli says.
Family Inspiration and Support
Puddin’s owner grew up watching Food Network and other cooking shows. She noticed the lack of diversity, especially before 2011, when she applied to become a contestant on the “Next Food Network Star.” She made it pretty far but was not chosen for the show. “My concept was African food. My dad is from West Africa, and West African food is absolutely delicious,” Alli says.
Owning a food business allows her to marry the West African and Southern cuisines she grew up cooking and enjoying at home. Alli’s mom let her experiment in the kitchen and is now one of her biggest supporters. Ann Alli manages Puddin’s Union Market location and collaborates with her daughter on recipes. “We love to be experimental, so we’re always trying to do something new. I trust her palate. When she tells me something is good, I know it is actually good.”
Alli’s favorite cooks are her mother and her father, Christopher, a mechanical engineer. She cherishes early memories of enjoying cooking and eating together with her family. The support provided by her parents, five brothers, friends and mentors made it possible for her to succeed step by step. “I am incredibly appreciative of family and friends that are like family that have helped along the way.”
Elevating with Community Kitchen
Continuing to give her all to expanding the Puddin’ enterprise is one of the ways Alli honors her family. Another is contributing to the elevation of other small entrepreneurs and the quality of food available in Capitol Heights. She chose to locate her community kitchen in the Maryland neighborhood close to the District of Columbia. “Having lived there, I noticed how much of a food desert it actually is,” says Alli. “The one grocery store that I had in my neighborhood just recently closed down. The access to food in Capitol Heights is shocking.”
Many of her neighbors are government workers and contractors who can afford better quality food. Alli expects Puddin’ Community Kitchen to attract small food vendors looking for preparation space and new carryout customers. “It’s not just bringing one business to Capitol Heights. I could potentially be bringing 15 businesses that are going to provide all kinds of food and different cuisines.”
The new incubator will also operate what is called a dark kitchen, a place where all of the tenants can make their dishes, pack them up, and have them delivered. “I really like the idea of carryout and people getting really good quality food quickly. It’s going to bring a variety of food not through one business, but multiple businesses. I think that’s the cool part about it,” Alli says.
Puddin’s owner has no interest in opening a restaurant. She gets enough joy out of employing people to work at her vendor locations and on the food trucks. Alli participates in the District’s Project Empowerment Program. It covers the cost of hiring someone released from incarceration or applicants with no job skills. One of Alli’s employees turned her life around after 15 years in prison by joining Puddin’s staff. “And I’m grateful to have an excellent employee. I’m getting something out of this, too,” adds Alli.
Looking toward the future, Alli would like to start a nonprofit that offers scholarships to pay six months of incubator space for small business owners who need a boost. She also wants to offer cooking classes for kids and other informational programs at the community kitchen. She advises anyone interested in launching a business in the food industry not to rush in without knowing more about what it takes to succeed. “I encourage people to take baby steps into the food industry. If you’ve never been in the food industry, it’s going to be shocking how much work it is.”
Alli recognizes that a person’s perseverance, marketing plan and collaborations with other business owners can all impact survival. Still, she encourages others to take the leap, keep going and work with people more likely to treat you fairly and without prejudice. “What I do is I work with my community as best I can in every aspect, whether it is hiring, training, or anything else. I truly believe that we have to do that. We have to support each other because other people may or may not do so.”
Puddin’ Community Kitchen is located at 8900 Edgeworth Drive, Suite N, Capitol Heights, Md. Call 202.905.7451 if you are interested in renting space or want more information.