Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
Jennifer Chan, CMO
Photography - HIRO
Interview - MINA
"We actually didn't come from prior experience in the food business but that allowed us to view the food industry from a completely different angle and bring in unique solutions based on our diverse backgrounds. By drawing on our collective experiences, we're able to address challenges within the food industry with a fresh and innovative approach."
Coho Collective is named after a salmon to reflect its West Coast roots since Coho salmon are only found in the North Pacific Ocean. When young salmon migrate to the sea for the first time, they live in schools for safety. However, as they mature into adults, salmon venture out to deeper waters, where they live, eat, and swim alone. As a business, Coho seems to embody this salmon's behavior pattern. They collectively nurture and support each other, but as they grow, they pursue individual success.
For anyone looking to start a food business with minimal startup costs, Coho could be the ideal place. Its top-notch kitchen space and equipment, comprehensive business support, and extensive community network will make your entrepreneurial journey much smoother. Additionally, Jennifer and the team take excellent care of each member, treating them like family and enduring growing pains together. It's no wonder there are over 300 waitlisted entrepreneurs eager to join the Coho family!
When VOICE visited one of Coho Collective's kitchens at 1370 East Georgia Street for an interview, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Takenaka, a Japanese bento food truck and member for three years, had transformed the former Coho Coffee into a new Onigiri Cafe. This serves as a prime example of how Coho provides growth opportunities for its members. "There was a retail space available, and I believed Vancouver was in need of onigiri," Jennifer explains. "It's fantastic to see Takenaka thriving, and it demonstrates how our members grow alongside us despite the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship." Jennifer, who embarked on her entrepreneurial journey in 2010, finds inspiration in hearing the stories behind the beginnings of businesses. She finds solace and motivation by engaging in conversations with fellow entrepreneurs in the kitchens. "It reminds me of why I'm doing this. It's incredibly fulfilling."
Coho Collective accompanies local startup businesses on their journey until they thrive independently, and achieve remarkable success. Our conversation with Jennifer provided valuable insights into the factors contributing to Coho Collective's rise as Canada's largest shared kitchen space company and its continuous expansion.
VOICE(V): Can you tell us your background and how Coho came about?
Jen(J): I was born and raised in a rural farming community in Saskatchewan. My parents immigrated from Hong Kong in the 70s, making me the first-generation Hong Kongese Canadian. They owned and operated a Chinese Canadian restaurant in my hometown. Witnessing their hard work, I was discouraged from pursuing a career in the food industry. It never crossed my mind that I would eventually find my way into it. As you know, immigrant parents often encourage their children to attend university and secure comfortable office jobs. So, I followed that path, attending university in the UK and later at UBC. For the first 15 years, I worked in the technology field, but I found myself lacking inspiration.
In 2010, I moved to Spain with my partner, where we resided in Madrid for five years due to his job. It was during the height of the last financial crisis, and the youth unemployment rate was high. Uncertain about my own prospects, I embarked on two endeavors. First, I had to learn Spanish because back then, hardly anyone spoke English there. Secondly, I started a granola company with a friend because I missed Terra Breads’ granola. In Europe, muesli was popular, but I tried to recreate a product that didn't exist there. Eventually, I felt the need to deepen my understanding of business, prompting me to return to school and pursue an MBA in Spain.
When I returned to Canada in 2015, I missed the vibrant food markets and events of Europe. Thus, I decided to embark on a side hustle with some friends outside of our regular 9-to-5 jobs, which led to the creation of a brunch food festival. Our first major event, The Brunch Affair, took place at the Pipe Shop in North Vancouver in 2017, followed by another series of events in 2018. However, we soon realized that while it was a lot of work, the profitability was not substantial. The most valuable takeaway was the connections we made with food industry professionals such as chefs, bakers, creators, and food truck owners. Through these conversations, we began to grasp the challenges they faced in their businesses. A recurring theme we heard was the lack of clean, well-maintained commissary kitchens in the city and the absence of spaces for their businesses to grow. When we repeatedly encountered the same narrative, we recognized the need in Vancouver and pondered if we could address it. That marked the beginning of our first commissary kitchen in 2018, located on Powell Street behind Andina Brewing.
V: How many locations do you operate now?
J: We experienced rapid expansion, and our operations now encompass 7 locations. Our Powell Street facility serves as our dedicated baking kitchen. Coho East Georgia primarily focuses on wholesale food production and virtual restaurants, while our newest addition, a gluten-free kitchen, recently opened on Pandora Avenue. The Gibson location, established in 2022, features our inaugural restaurant, Brassica, which we proudly refer to as a "community-to-table" dining experience. Led by Head Chef Jack Chen and Pastry Chef Hilary Prince, a husband-and-wife team hailing from L'Abattoir. Brassica sources ingredients exclusively from local suppliers, farmers, and brands. Situated behind the restaurant is the Coho Sunshine Coast, designed to showcase and connect the community with local brands.
Additionally, we have another location in Victoria and an upcoming location in Richmond. In White Rock, we introduced our latest pilot concept, Coho Eatery. This innovative model explores the notion of shared-restaurants-as-a-service, where three to four brands can utilize our restaurant-style kitchen for dine-in or takeaway purposes. Our aim is to lower the entry barriers for retail-ready brands, as starting a restaurant independently typically entails exorbitant costs and long leases.
Our continuous growth and decision-making processes revolve around providing more opportunities while ensuring the success of the approximately 30 to 40 different companies within each of our locations. We understand the reliance placed on our spaces by entrepreneurs to produce and sell efficiently, hire employees, and sustain livelihoods. Thus, we recognize the weight of this responsibility. Recently, we faced the challenge of relocating our members to a new facility after closing our previous North Vancouver location. This transition spanned nearly eight months, but our commitment to avoiding disruptions and supporting our members compelled us to find alternative solutions rather than leaving them without a space to operate their businesses.
V: How do you describe your Coho operation as different from other commissary kitchens in the city?
J: My co-founders and I didn't come from the food business. I came from the tech sector, and Andrew, my partner, came from the video game industry at Electronic Arts. Amrit, our other co-founder was originally from real estate development. We can approach the food industry from a different perspective and apply some of the solutions from our experiences and other backgrounds to the challenges in the food industry.
As entrepreneurs ourselves, we have a tremendous amount of empathy for how difficult it is to start, launch and grow a business. We try to think holistically about how we can support these companies through various programs or initiatives. It's still in progress because every member has different needs and different operational processes or workflows.
Other commissary kitchens oftentimes play landlords providing only space. We try to be a little bit more hands-on and collaborative.
Even though I'm the Chief Marketing Officer, I also have the responsibility for the entire customer journey from marketing to sales to member success. What I'm passionate about is thinking about how we can make our members more successful. Ultimately, our success is tied to their success. The challenge is understanding what success looks like for every individual company. It can look very different for everyone,
V: How do you select a new member to Coho?
J: The one thing that sets us apart from many other shared kitchens is our willingness to accept individuals with no prior experience. While some commissaries prefer to collaborate exclusively with established entrepreneurs or brands, we believe in fostering a diverse and inclusive community. Our goal is to create a workspace where everyone feels a sense of belonging, acceptance, and respect when they step into our kitchens. During the application process, we strive to assess whether these individuals can be good community stewards.
Simultaneously, we aim to provide equal opportunities to all. In a way, it can be first-come, first-served. Membership does not have a straightforward answer. We seek to understand the nature of their business, what they intend to produce, when they plan to produce it, and whether they are well-suited for a shared space. Sharing is indeed caring, but it also requires compromise.
V: How long do members stay with Coho?
J: On the one hand, companies can start their businesses in our kitchens for a very short amount of time and on the other hand some of our member companies have been with us for 5 years..
V: Do you see any changes in the food industry in the post-pandemic?
J: The rise in food costs has been a challenge. I'm sure all our members are dealing with it in different ways, but ultimately, those costs need to get passed down to customers as well. One of the things that we are actively trying to do is to set up bulk ordering programs with some of the bigger suppliers so that there's a little bit of a discount. The collective buying power is a little better than ordering for one company.
V: What is your future vision for Coho Collective?
J: We hope to be able to open more kitchens and have more member companies operating out of our kitchens. Our goal is to be the best place to start and grow a food business.
V: What does food mean to you?
J: I don't want to claim that food is everything, but it does hold significant importance, doesn't it? Food has the power to bring people together. Personally, it serves as a wellspring of creativity for me. Despite growing up in a restaurant environment, I didn't have a genuine interest in food during my childhood. Eating was simply a necessity for energy and play. Cooking also didn't captivate me until I reached the age of nineteen. It was during my time at university, surrounded by international friends at UBC, that I had the opportunity to explore a wide array of delightful cuisines. This experience opened my eyes, gradually igniting my interest in cooking as a form of creative expression.
Food is invariably intertwined with socializing and spending quality time with friends and family. It permeates our lives, surrounding us in various forms. From a business perspective, it offers a platform for storytelling, cultural exchange, and livelihood. Starting a food and hospitality business is a common path, particularly for newcomers to Canada, much like my parents. It serves as a familiar territory, and often the most accessible and straightforward route to embark upon. Similarly, when I moved to Spain without a grasp of the language, I found solace in starting a food company. In that sense, food becomes a means to connect—bridging gaps and facilitating communication.
Coho Collective Kitchens
Jennifer Chan, CMO
Welcome to Coho Commissary, your destination for launching culinary dreams and landing bold ambitions. Here we fuel the culinary community with new creators, exciting entrepreneurs, and authentic flavours through our network of commissary kitchens, restaurants and more.