Plate Full of Promise: Community Kitchen Contributes to Revitalized City, Launches Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Real Good Kitchen mural superimposed on a yellow plate

Prep time at Real Good Kitchen sometimes feels like a really good party. Chefs wash, chop, dice and grate as they sing along to ’80s music streaming from a phone. They joke, laugh and dish on the day’s news. They sample each other’s creations, pitch in when someone needs help and talk through the stress of feeding a lot of people.

Row of vintage plates
Bailey Foster ’94 portrait in the Real Good Kitchen facility

Bailey Foster ’94 has increased culinary offerings and opportunities for food creators in her Knoxville hometown.

From southeast Asia to North Africa, South America to the American south, the food they make spans the world. Bailey Foster ’94 envisioned this when she set out to expand the culinary offerings in her Knoxville hometown. That vision came with a mission: to help aspiring culinary entrepreneurs succeed, and to bring healthy, affordable food options to an area with too few.

Foster’s living an entrepreneurial dream herself with Real Good Kitchen, a full-service, shared, commercial kitchen where members can rent prep space and equipment by the hour at affordable rates. The kitchen’s motto, “Make change through food,” steers her.

Its location, in traditionally underserved East Knoxville, underscores that. Since opening three years ago, Real Good Kitchen has helped more than 100 small businesses launch and expand. It offers what many couldn’t swing on their own: a sparkling-clean, well-equipped, 2,500-square-foot commercial kitchen with swoon-worthy features.

A commercial oven bakes, broils, steams or smokes meats, breads, vegetables and desserts. A high-temperature dishwasher sanitizes glasses, dishes and utensils in under two minutes. The commercial pantry, refrigerator and freezer provide dry and cold storage space.

And there’s more: From mentorship to navigating licensing and food safety rules, business plans and food costs, to matching chefs with customers, Foster and her staff share their energy, expertise and connections.

Last year, her team launched a non-profit partner, Real Good Foundation, which offers extended mentoring and business planning in a new pilot Food Business Incubator program. The foundation also works to provide meals at low-to-no cost for those in need.

“Entrepreneurship is lonely and stressful. It can be hard to make money, and hard to figure out why you’re not making money,” Foster says. “Just having a community of people who are all working together is the most valuable service we offer.

“Their success is our success.”

Chef Tarik Becha says his catering business, Tarik’s North African, has grown dramatically since it launched from Real Good Kitchen three years ago. The Algeria native moved to Knoxville in 2014 with his wife, Alison, who grew up there.

He has cooked in restaurants from Paris to Greece, North Africa to Knoxville, and always aspired to have his own.

“I wondered; how do I start?,” he says. “When Real Good Kitchen opened, it was like all of us who always wanted to open a small business got pulled out of a big hole. I met Bailey and after talking to her for a long time she told me that she knew I’d be a success.”

That confidence is rooted in community.

“Starting a business is like having a baby, and here, it’s like everyone is helping you take care of the baby,” Becha says. “Bailey wants people to realize their dreams. The work she has done to make this possible has been beautiful.”

Becha now caters jobs ranging from 50-plate corporate luncheons to 200-guest weddings to a 500-meal university event.

“Without Real Good Kitchen, Tarik’s kitchen wouldn’t exist,” Becha says. “A lot of these businesses wouldn’t exist. Bailey has so many connections and that has helped all of us so much. I’m getting close to opening my own restaurant, but I will miss Real Good Kitchen.”

Real Good Kitchen member preparing food in the kitchen

North African chef Tarik Becha always wanted to start his own business but didn’t know how—until he met Foster.

Roots in Knoxville

Foster’s family ties to Knoxville run deep. Her dad, Bruce, was a lawyer and active in their church and community. Betsy Foster was a stay-at-home mom for Bailey and her brother, Ben, then later worked as a buyer for a women’s clothing boutique. Both her parents grew up in Knoxville, went to the University of Tennessee there, and remain firmly rooted in the city.

Bailey Foster majored in English—not food or finance—at Davidson College and describes professors who challenged her to develop a broad worldview through literature and a liberal arts education.

“I had such wonderful professors—Tony Abbott, Cynthia Lewis, Elizabeth Mills, Gail Gibson and so many others,” Foster says. “I have so many fond memories of them and that time.”

She worked in College Relations for a year after graduating, then ventured to Columbia University and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in non-fiction. She started her career as a publishing house assistant; later jobs included retail management, healthcare consulting and software.

She met her wife, Marcia Tobin, in graduate school. Tobin’s career with an environmental engineering firm took them to San Francisco. Foster initially planned to work in publishing there, but when that fell through, got a job at Trader Joe’s and later managed one of the popular grocery chain’s largest stores. 

“Retail grocery management was not at all what I had in mind, but they paid well and I learned a lot. It was a great experience,” she says. “I’ve had a pretty non-linear career path, but it all makes sense to me.”

She says she’s enjoyed and learned from every turn her professional life has taken—and that those twists paved the way for her dream of opening Real Good Kitchen.

“A liberal arts education prepares you for all kinds of things, the skills are invaluable in careers and in life,” she says. “I know how to think critically and write and communicate and collaborate. I gained that from my Davidson education.”

Her career path veered again with the birth of her children, Henry, now 17, and Maggie, 12. In 2013, the pull of extended family and more affordable living beckoned them from California to Tennessee.

“When I graduated from high school, I was ready to explore other places, I didn’t see what Knoxville had to offer me and I never planned to come back,” she says. “But once we had children, family took on new importance. I wanted them to have a strong relationship with their grandparents. And Knoxville was a place where I had more connections than anywhere else.”

A Different Hometown

Knoxville had changed in her absence, with a vibrant, revitalized downtown and a strong focus on local food, beverages and agriculture.

“That wasn’t a priority when I was growing up—we were more of a city with mostly chain restaurants then,” she says. “Coming from New York and San Francisco, having diverse food options and opportunities to engage with local producers and chefs was very important to me.”

Foster worked in communications for the Knox County Public Defenders’ Office during her first years back in Knoxville and grew to know a side of the city she hadn’t experienced before.

The contrasts between the rejuvenated downtown with its upscale restaurants and the city’s poorest neighborhoods—“food deserts,” where residents must travel far to buy healthy food—bolstered her drive to make a difference.

“I know so many folks doing such important work to expand that prosperity to our whole community,” she says. “We were and still are on the precipice of growing into a different kind of city. I wanted to be part of building a place where I wanted to live and raise my kids.”

Food—a lifelong passion—inspired her next steps. She remembers as a child first watching, and then helping cook big family meals with her mom and grandmother. She savored the vast food offerings of New York and San Francisco during her years there, and hoped to help Knoxville expand its flavors by creating opportunities for more people to share their food and culture. 

Foster researched commercial kitchens across the country. She wanted to offer people not only rented kitchen space, but a welcoming, inclusive community invested in their success. She modeled Real Good Kitchen on La Cocina, a San Francisco non-profit commissary and incubator program that helps women, immigrants and people of color become food entrepreneurs.

Real Good Kitchen opened in 2021 with four businesses, and now has served more than 100. Some 70% have been owned or co-owned by women and 37% by people of color. About 80% are startups.

The kitchen has six workstations. Some people spend as few as eight hours per month there, others put in more than 100. They include bakers, food truck operators, caterers and businesses that manufacture and package foods from smoked cherries for cocktails to hot sauce, to a bottled tea business.

Savings and a commercial real estate partnership helped Foster buy, renovate and equip the building. Memberships range from $240 to $2,100 a month, depending on how many hours food producers book for the kitchen. The kitchen and its first few businesses opened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We started growing from there. It was hard, but not being busy yet—and not expecting to be very busy—gave us our own runway to start figuring things out,” she says. “We wore masks and cleaned a lot, and worked as a community to get through it together.”

Foster says the kitchen broke even for the first time last year and expects it to become more profitable as membership grows.

Not all businesses have succeeded. Foster says that some members discovered early on that they didn’t see a future in their business plans. Unlike buying a restaurant or food truck though, the kitchen gave them an affordable testing ground.

It has been an exhilarating and sometimes stressful venture. She turns to her family and friends—inside and out of the kitchen—when she needs a sounding board and describes her wife as Real Good Kitchen’s “Chief Emotional Support Officer.”

“As an entrepreneur, you have to get comfortable with the feeling that things are falling apart and coming together all at the same time,” she says, quoting advice from a social media post that resonated. “My experience of making my business alongside those of our members helps me empathize with what they’re going through.”   

Restaurant and commercial kitchens can be harried, chaotic places. Real Good Kitchen members describe a lively, jovial atmosphere where friendships among people from many different places form and grow. Foster offers a smart, calm, reassuring presence.

“Bailey is a leader. She’s very approachable, supportive and kind, and if someone’s having a problem, she comes up with a solution,” says Thitinart Boriboon, owner-chef of AppeThai, a food truck and catering business. “No matter what’s going on, I’ve never seen Bailey freak out.”

Thitinart Boriboon standing in the door of her AppeThai food truck

AppeThai owner Thitinart Boriboon spent the early part of the pandemic teaching herself how to cook her favorite foods from her native Thailand.

Boriboon came from Thailand to the United States in 2020 to attend an entrepreneurship program at UCLA. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut the campus, she moved to Knoxville to be near family friends from Thailand.

She spent the first pandemic year learning how to cook her own version of her favorite Thai foods. She opened her food truck business in 2021 when many people were avoiding restaurants because of the pandemic. After looking into area commissaries, she settled on Real Good Kitchen.

“Being in business and managing everything by yourself is overwhelming. Being a member of Real Good Kitchen is like having a team behind you. You’re not just paying rent, you become part of a real community,” Boriboon says. “It’s such a fun, cozy vibe, and I have made so many friends. Everyone supports each other. If someone runs out of something or needs help, there’s always someone happy to jump in.”

Last September, with Foster’s help, Boriboon expanded her business into the new territory of catering. She now caters weddings and other big events.

Bailey’s done something really good for Knoxville, not just the food business, but the city itself,” Boriboon says. “She’s a valuable person—she’s awesome. I’m so lucky that I met her.

Thitinart Boriboon

Food for Change

Real Good Foundation takes Foster’s mission further.

Its new six-month Food Business Incubator program offers participants reduced kitchen costs, technical support, mentorship and advisory services. The inaugural class has three small businesses in various stages of development. Those who successfully complete the program will get $1,000 in cash and business services.

Kayla Sonneby and Kelley Callaway are in the first cohort. The University of Tennessee alums started Butter from the Block in 2022, renting space at Real Good Kitchen to produce and jar their compound butter creations.

They started selling their butter, with flavors ranging from black truffle garlic to sweet heat, at festivals and farmers markets. Business has grown locally as more markets and specialty shops carry it. They hope to someday stock their butter in supermarkets across the country.

The incubator program has set them up with experienced business mentors. They meet monthly with volunteer marketing, legal and financial advisors. Foster and kitchen manager Alhen Drillich offer extensive advice and support.

We would not be where we are without the kitchen. Bailey and Alhen have been so enthusiastic and encouraging and have really guided us,’’ Callaway says. “The people we’ve met through the kitchen have also been so helpful and generous about sharing what they know. They genuinely care about your success—we’ve become part of this community that wants us to succeed.

Kelley Callaway

The foundation is also developing a program with local partners including CAC Beardsley Community Farm, the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center, the Shora Foundation and others to bring more healthy, affordable prepared meals to east Knoxville children and families. The initiative, called the Community Meal Program, has been hosting an annual holiday meal and periodic pay-what-you-can lunches since the kitchen opened. Foster hopes to raise funds this year to expand and scale the program.

“Real Good Kitchen and the foundation are like the missing links to some of the food access challenges in Knoxville,” says Charlotte Rodina, urban agriculture director at Beardsley, a non-profit farm. “Bailey provides the tools the community wants and needs to gain equitable access to resources, and space to start and run their food businesses.

“It’s been a pleasure to see the kitchen come alive and see businesses that got their start there prosper. Their businesses have been rooted in community support and they pay it forward and support community projects.”

Vic Scott and her brother Josh Coates were among the kitchen’s first clients. They started out with a borrowed food truck, and later opened their Knoxville restaurant, Seoul Brothers. Their menu fuses the southern food of their Tennessee upbringing with their late mother’s native South Korean dishes.

“I met Bailey when I toured the kitchen and 30 minutes turned into three hours,” Scott says. “Seeing the fire and passion she has for helping people in the community is contagious. She’s got big plans and big dreams and the know-how to get it done.”

Scott now serves as a board member of Real Good Foundation.

“The impact Bailey has already made has been super-crucial to this community,” she says. “And that impact is going to keep growing.”

Full Circle, Full Steam Ahead

Change has come to East Knoxville.

Redevelopment, including a multi-use minor league baseball stadium now under construction, has inspired plans for new businesses, housing and other opportunities. The stadium is scheduled to open next year.

Foster has been active in those plans.

She chairs the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council and serves on the East Knoxville Business and Professional Association Board and the Mayor’s Maker Council. She’s a member of Leadership Knoxville’s class of 2024. And she’s working with a federal program to put a second commercial kitchen location in a Knoxville public housing community, further expanding opportunities for residents there.

Knoxville’s growing population includes refugees from central and south America, Africa, and more recently, Afghanistan. Enterprising chefs have found a city receptive to the variety of cuisines coming from their countries and cultures.

“We’re focused on diversifying, and providing opportunities for an inclusive economy where more people can thrive,” Foster says. “We’ve lowered the risk, and the costs, so that people can build, grow and sustain their businesses. We’re as intent on having impact in our community as we are on growing our profitability. It’s a double bottom line of mission and profit.”

“A Taste of Real Good Kitchen” brings the chefs and food producers to major events such as the annual Dogwood Arts Festival, which draws crowds of about 50,000 to the city. Big events help them build name recognition and a growing customer base.

Her personal plans include creating a public-facing café space and a food hall in the half of her building that’s currently unused. She wants East Knoxville to become a destination where residents and visitors can enjoy an international array of great food and community.

“This is the culmination of the things that have been meaningful in my life. Food has always been a through line,” she says. “I’m not a professional chef, but I come from a long line of wonderful home cooks. Cooking and gathering around the table have always been an essential part of the way I live.”

Her own cooking gravitates to Mediterranean and Italian flavors. And she loves to eat, “anything—particularly flavors I haven’t tried before.”

Fortunately, new and delicious flavors abound at Real Good Kitchen.

“I’ve experienced so much of the world through food,” she says. “ I haven’t traveled to everywhere I want to go, but I get to experience a little bit of those places when I eat the food and hear the stories.

“I believe in the power of food to bring people together and create opportunities. I love sharing the enthusiasm people have for what they’re making. The food is almost a bonus of the job; at the same time, it’s fundamental to what we do.”

Real Good Kitchen event with tents

A Taste of Real Good Kitchen brings chefs and food producers to major events.

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.