CHIQs team. All photos by the author.
Owning a small business can be tough, but going car-free doesn’t have to make it any harder. My wife and I have lived in DC without a car for four years and we’re making our small business work, even with places to go and products to deliver.
We run CHIQS, a local artisan food business that produces baked chickpea snacks. You might have seen our product at Glen’s Garden Market, Localteria, or on the Nicely App.
Admittedly, choosing transportation options that are convenient, affordable, and sustainable for our small business requires a little more thought than doing it in our day-to-day lives outside of business, but it’s still very possible.
We chose a kitchen we can access car-free
Food businesses are legally required to operate out of a commercial kitchen. When we started CHIQS last year, we were committed to staying car-free, so our first challenge was finding a kitchen accessible without a car.
After reviewing our options, we chose Union Kitchen, a culinary incubator in NoMa. Union Kitchen has great resources to help us produce our product and services to help us grow our business, which is important.
But equally important for us was that it’s near the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a Metro station, and a Capital Bikeshare station, making it easy for us to commute back and forth from our home in Logan Circle.
Union Kitchen’s emphasis on building community and supporting its members was the deciding factor for us, but the accessibility of the kitchen was essential. If we were starting our search today, we’d have more options to choose from, as food incubators have opened up in transit- and bike-friendly Edgewood and Adams Morgan.
Our first challenge: farmer’s markets
When we initially began the food business, we sold freshly-made, gluten-free flatbread sandwiches at the Columbia Heights and CityCenter Farmer’s Markets. We had to transport multiple stoves, tables, a tent, and a cooler to and from the markets each week.
While we would normally get to Columbia Heights and CityCenter using our own bikes, Bikeshare, MetroBus, Car2Go, or walking, needing to transport all of that of heavy equipment definitely shrunk our car-free options. The best solution we found was UberXL, which could fit both of us and our equipment. Many drivers even offered to assist us with unloading.
Wholesale orders and grocery stores
Today, for wholesale orders close to the kitchen, we deliver by foot, bicycle, or Metro. For larger orders, we use Union Kitchen’s distribution program. As part of the program, Union Kitchen owns one truck and distributes products for 40 different businesses to 35 different stores all directly from the kitchen, which is certainly a big help.
Focusing distribution on local groceries stores helps, too. Stores like Glen’s Garden Market and Each Peach, among others, put a strong emphasis on stocking local products, which helps businesses like ours do more sales in a smaller geographical footprint. Operating a business car-free has forced us to focus on stores within a smaller area, but we have made it work in further-flung locations. For example, we took the T2 bus to the Market at River Falls in Potomac, Maryland to do a sampling of our product there.
Car-free makes good (business) sense for us
When we started our business, we were concerned that we would have to sacrifice our values of sustainability and car-free lifestyle to build an economically viable business. Instead, by selecting a transit- and bike-accessible commercial kitchen space and taking advantage of a system that makes it easy to share a distribution truck, we can operate our business in line with our personal values.
In doing so, we also avoided some of the large capital expenditures of traditional food businesses. That’s allowed us to spend our resources on developing new products, working with a designer on branding and packaging, and sampling and marketing our product to new customers. In turn, our business has been more successful with fewer costs.
Plus, a central part of our message is that not only is our product a healthy snack, but that we produce and distribute it in a way that is healthy for the environment and the surrounding community. All of our employees are DC residents who walk or take public transportation to work, hired through the District’s Project Empowerment Program. Being car-free ourselves feeds into that philosophy even more.
In the future
Going car-free has worked thus far, but we do face new challenges as we grow in volume and expand our reach. We will have to make tough decisions about whether or not to expand into new markets in different regions of the country, or to develop more products to sell in the Washington, DC area. We will also likely outgrow Union Kitchen someday soon, and may need to find an even bigger facility accessible without a car. But we’re committed and optimistic that we’ll be able to keep things up car-free!