Catapult Culinary is giving local women and BIPOC chefs a place to really cook | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Catapult Culinary is giving local women and BIPOC chefs a place to really cook

click to enlarge Catapult Culinary is giving local women and BIPOC chefs a place to really cook
Terina J. Hicks of Cobbler World is using Catapult's kitchen to prepare baked goods to be used in Millie's Homemade Ice Cream.

At Allegheny General Hospital’s suburban campus, an ordinary loading dock has become a hub of activity. Carts full of restaurant staples and banquet supplies are loaded into the building — but none of it is for patients. The Bellevue hospital ceased all inpatient services in 2010. While there are still medical offices on site, that shift meant the large commercial kitchen sat mostly unused for a decade — until Catapult Greater Pittsburgh discovered it and launched a culinary accelerator program in 2021. “It certainly needed a deep clean,” says Lachelle Bell, Director of Entrepreneurship for Catapult Culinary. “But it’s a great space. Access to commercial kitchen space is the biggest barrier for chefs,” she adds. The spacious and well-appointed kitchen entered its next act.

That inaugural group of 15 food-based business owners completed a year of entrepreneur classes, followed by a year of free commercial kitchen usage and continued guidance. All 15 businesses were owned by people of color, and 10 were woman-owned.

“Catapult Culinary was born when we understood that the pandemic was going to negatively impact businesses in a way that many of us had never seen in our lifetime,” Tammy Thompson, Founding Executive Director of Catapult Greater Pittsburgh, tells Pittsburgh City Paper in an email. “We knew that there were ‘underground’ food-based businesses, operating with no health department certifications or business structure and although they were earning revenue they weren’t building sustainable businesses.”

As members of Catapult Culinary, participating chefs receive extensive training on how to run their food-based business — which involves more than just being a great cook. From creating a business entity to understanding Pennsylvania food safety regulations, cohort members have access to hands-on guidance every step of the way.

“They take courses on everything from marketing and branding to accounting, human relations law, operations, and more,” adds Bell. “We even have a session on balancing the stresses of entrepreneurship with daily life that we bring in a licensed therapist to lead.” 

Eric White, owner of Pittsburgh Dumplingz, was a part of that initial cohort. Today, he and his business manager, Amber Slaughter, mix filling and stuff dumplings in a familiar cadence while chatting with fellow Catapult members. White continues to run his business from the kitchen — which participants can do at a discounted rate after they complete the initial program. 

“I realized I needed to put my business first,” he says. Other work within the service industry prevented him from chasing his dream, but Catapult gave him the skills to grow his own business. White now cooks regularly for breweries, farmers markets, and festivals across the city. He also sells dumplings wholesale, both to consumers and local restaurants. He’s always been a great chef, but he says the business skills he learned made his business sustainable. 

Marge Matyi-Fekete, a member of the second cohort, says Catapult Culinary allowed her to tackle an idea she had for years. Her business, Soup de Ville, is based on recipes she’s spent years perfecting. Today, she’s dropping dumplings into a spinach-roasted garlic soup and passing out bowls. Her colleagues hype her up — the vibe is consistently collaborative in the shared kitchen space. “I wouldn’t be doing this business without Catapult. The tips and tricks they’ve passed on, they’re invaluable.” 

click to enlarge Catapult Culinary is giving local women and BIPOC chefs a place to really cook
Terina J. Hicks (center) talks to Lachelle Bell (right) and Marge Matyi-Fekete atCatapult's incubator kitchen located inside Allegheny General Hospital in Bellevue.

Matyi-Fekete says kitchen manager Nissa’a Stallworth recently helped her learn how to post to Instagram, a necessary marketing skill for today’s small businesses. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. 

Behind Matyi-Fekete, chef Sharday McGee of Bouji Bites works at a commercial range — passing out crab cakes for a taste test. “I just began in November, but I’ve already learned so much.” she says. Terina J. Hicks, owner of CobblerWorld, nods in agreement from a prep table where she’s dividing warm cornbread onto plates. Adding a drizzle of honey to each square before passing it around, Hicks says she had been trying to grow her business for a decade before discovering Catapult. “I was one of the test dummies in the initial cohort,” she laughs. Now with a storefront on Penn Avenue and commercial partnerships with both Giant Eagle and Millie’s Ice Cream, she’s finally seeing the growth she’s been chasing. Hicks, who has a Master’s degree in entrepreneurial management from Carnegie Mellon University, says the education she received from Catapult has been every bit as valuable. 

That is the goal, says Bell. “One of the things that works for us is the smaller cohort size and attention that our members get as they go and grow through the program.” Keeping the cohorts small was intentional, she says. “We love that each participant becomes part of the Catapult family.” 

While they intend to keep cohorts small, which means there is a waitlist to apply right now, the team says the program is continuing to grow in other ways. A new gathering space called The Celebration Hall of Larimer will provide more opportunity to help small food-based businesses grow in the region while serving as a much-needed gathering and event space in the East End. 

“My work at Catapult has taught me that you shouldn't have to choose between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish," says Bell. 

She says they’ve chosen, instead, to do both. “When you do both, you are breaking the barriers that stand in the way of systematically disenfranchised communities and teaching them what to do once those barriers are broken, thus allowing them to take the path of generational wealth-building. It's very inspiring.”

Making burrata with Caputo Brothers Creamery
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