The Mariano family created The Lab, a commercial kitchen where those starting out in the food truck or catering industry can work and grow their businesses. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)

Gilbert Mariano Sr. bought his sons a food truck not realizing it would lead them to another business venture.

Two years ago, brothers Nicholas and Gilbert Mariano Jr. started LuvABowls, which sells protein meals in a bowl.

That’s when they learned, like many other aspiring small food vendors, that Virginia requires operators to have a commissary kitchen — a licensed commercial kitchen regulated by the health department to prep, cook, and store food and equipment.

Prepping from a restaurant, they realized a potential need for startup food vendors. So the Mariano siblings, along with Nicholas’ wife, Daryelis, decided to invest LuvABowls’ profit to create their own shared use commercial kitchen.

In June, they opened The Lab Commercial Kitchen at 405 S. Witchduck Road in the historic Kempsville area of Virginia Beach.

Formerly a Pollard’s Chicken Restaurant, the Marianos — with the help of their extended family — renovated, equipped, and outfitted the approximately 2,500-square-foot building conveniently located near Interstate 264 and a mile and a half from Restaurant Depot.

“We rent out to other food trucks, caterers, bakers and small businesses just to get them on their feet,” Nicholas Mariano said.

At the end of the day, the Marianos, from left, Gilbert Jr., Nicholas and Gilbert Sr., wash the dishes used in the family’s food truck at The Lab, a commercial kitchen they created to help those starting out in the business on Nov. 12. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)

The facility includes six stainless steel prep stations, walk-in fridge, dried storage space, dishwasher, mixer, utility and hand sinks, gas fryers, convection ovens, gas flat-top griddles and a microwave.

“We provide all the pots and pans, equipment and chemicals, so all they have to do is bring their own product and cook,” he said.

Memberships are customized based on the individual vendor’s needs. Members rent by the hour and have 24/7 access. To date, 13 vendors have signed on at The Lab including VB Fit Fuel, a meal prep delivery service.

Since starting VB Fit Fuel four years ago, Sierra Heller has grown the business to serve 300 clients weekly. She rented space in different restaurants throughout the area, but within a day of touring The Lab, Heller said she knew this was where she needed to be. The commercial kitchen has been flexible with her needs.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for them,” she said.

Keshawn Sanderson, owner of Sweet Life Cupcakery, prepares her treats at The Lab, a commercial kitchen where those starting out in the food truck or catering industry can work and grow their business. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)

Cooking up a business

Andrew Knezovich was a fixture in the local restaurant scene when he decided to start a food truck.

Faced with the same problem as the Mariano brothers, Knezovich delved into creating a commissary kitchen. In May 2020, Knezovich and his wife, Rica, opened My Commissary Kitchen at 3351 Chesapeake Blvd. in Norfolk.

In October, Ryan Payne, the first member of the kitchen and owner of a food truck, Market Soul, joined the partnership.

“I was really only looking for a couple of people that shared the same idea as me to help support the kitchen,” Knezovich said.

Five people turned into 10 and then into 15, he said. Today, there are over 80 members including food trucks, food carts, caterers, and food producers sharing the 2,100-square-foot space.

The partners are building out a second commissary kitchen, Mise Test Kitchen, at 2400 Alabama Ave. in Norfolk. The former electronic warehouse supply store is a little more than 14,500 square feet.

Knezovich said the facility will serve as an incubator kitchen for members to produce to-go orders and offer curbside pickup. They also created a monthly indoor market event, 757 Fork You, held at Maker’s Craft Brewery in Norfolk.

Members can continue to sell their products, grow their businesses, and bring fresh fare to areas without many options, he said.

“A lot of our members sell their products at the farmers markets, which are great, but they are not always open during the wintertime,” Knezovich said.

While he never got his food truck off the ground, Knezovich said watching other businesses grow in his kitchen is just as rewarding.

Pivoting to the need

Jason Smith opened Mayflower Commissary at 3322 Virginia Beach Blvd. in Virginia Beach in 2016.

“I was one of my members once looking for a place to start a business,” Smith said. “ … Not everyone has $5,000 to $6,000 to give to a retail outlet just to get a key and invest another $10,000 to $15,000, maybe more, just to get it open.”

But a back injury doused his cooking career. Instead, the former caterer who said he did meal preps before they were a thing, decided to start sharing, help people out and create a kitchen.

“So far we have 10 to 15 success stories of people that started with us from the bottom and now have their storefront,” he said.

The commissary also gets frequent inquiries related to CBD products as that industry continues to grow, Smith said.

Open 24/7, Mayflower Commissary has 20 startup businesses that use the kitchen space.

“Helping others and paying it forward gives you a good feeling,” Smith said. “Your dream can come true. Our kitchen and others in the area can help with that.”

Sandra J. Pennecke, 757-652-5836,