in partnership
ZIVA Mediterranean Foods (Image by Alissa Hudson Photography)

Tojo Commissary creates a space + community for small food-processing companies

Jody Haynes and Tomer Shneor, owners of ZIVA Mediterranean Foods, welcome other small startups into their food incubator space, Tojo Commissary. Here they produce some of the Northwest's best hummus — authentically Mediterranean and made with six simple ingredients including sprouted Pacific Northwest garbanzo beans. Tomer, a trained chef born in Israel, has refined his recipes in kitchens around the globe.

But Tojo Commissary isn't just home to ZIVA, the commissary kitchen in Rainier Beach is home to entrepreneurs from all walks of life who need a place to set up shop. With plenty of dry storage and walk-in space, shared use of stoves, grills, ovens, and more - it's been a godsend to companies who've faced the challenges of lost brick and mortars this year, or who have had to transition in other ways.

Haynes and Shneor are currently looking to broaden their community and share the space with a few more budding companies. Instead of offering set rates, pricing is tailored to each tenant's unique needs. Two prerequisites for joining: "Cooperation and openness."

"One interesting (unintentional and coincidental) commonality is female ownership," said Haynes. "Haxan Ferments is 100% female-owned, while ZIVA Hummus and Local Yokels are 50%. The other potential tenants currently in our 'pipeline' are also female-owned," said Haynes.

So what has helped all these small business navigate the challenges of the past year?

"Other small business owners and the network we’ve all built together," said Haynes, in addition to crediting ZIVA's staff. "Our farmers market neighbors all banded together to find ways to distribute direct to consumer, we all connected about financial support options, everyone talked to each other about ways they have modified their businesses to adapt."

Another step?

"Keeping our eyes open," says Haynes. "We noticed early on the potential for growth of direct-to-consumer delivery of groceries. So we expected existing companies like Local Yokels to grow and contacted them about offering ZIVA Hummus. And we found existing companies like Good Weather and Savor Seattle that pivoted into direct-to-consumer grocery delivery and approached them."

One final surprising answer: "Actually being small helped," Haynes explains. "We were able to turn on a dime and respond quickly to changing needs."

Damon and Amber Grady of Local Yokels learned about Tojo Commissary by seeing Tomer and Jody at citywide farmers markets, which led to carrying ZIVA Hummus on their website. They eventually learned of the couple’s “awesome warehouse with available space.” They have now been leasing at Tojo for nine months.

"We use our space for packing groceries three days a week for deliveries to the King County area," Grady says. "We have dry storage, a freezer, our packing area and walk-in space for our dairy and perishables. As a small business owner, the thing that has carried through this incredibly difficult last year is our unbelievable customers and their outpouring of gratitude for the service we provide.”

Jessica Husza learned about the kitchen space through the Seattle Made network and moved in in July 2019. Here, her company produces small-batch, "fiercely fermented farm-to-pantry hot sauce and vinegar for adventurous home cooks."

Haxan Ferments crafts its seasonally-driven products by hand with the best PNW ingredients they can find, working "closely with local farms to bring you amazing condiments that transform your food and support the local food system." The company's sauces incorporate unusual ingredients like pumpkin, cucumber and daikon radish; the vinegar is made through traditional, slow fermentation techniques using premium ingredients like Honeycrisp apples and Merlot grapes.

"We primarily sell through the farmers markets," Husza explains, "so the shutdowns and additional restrictions were tough. A thing that's been great is being able to work with other small businesses that also had to reinvent their business model—working with restaurants that became neighborhood markets or new grocery delivery services aimed at supporting local companies."

Despite any challenges of this year, Husza says, "[I love] getting to support Washington farmers, and helping people cook more with ingredients they love is a joy."

Haynes cherishes working with new tenants at Tojo, and learning about their ideas and business. "I like offering support to them and feeling like I helped them become successful," she says. "I wish I had more time for this piece and to hand-hold start-ups through some of the challenges, but we also have a full-time job just being focused on ZIVA hummus as well! Being partners with my husband is pretty amazing, also!"

Shneor agrees that developing relationships is a highlight – with their staff, tenants, suppliers, customers, contractors and other small business owners. "It’s just so cool to see everyone growing and doing their thing," he says, "and finding ways to survive and sometimes thrive in spite of this environment."