The cafe at DC Central Kitchen’s new location at 2121 First Street SW will offer coffee and light fare to the public. Courtesy of DC Central Kitchen

By Guy Aldridge 

DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) opened its doors at a new expansive Buzzard Point facility in March. Last month, The Southwester took a tour of the Klein Center for Jobs & Justice at 2121 First Street SW. “The Klein Center is more than just a building for us,” CEO Michael Curtin, Jr. said in a press release. “Our new home will allow us to triple our capacity, providing the healthy food and job training opportunities that our community needs more urgently than ever before.”

The New Location

Having won the Best Lease of 2020 award from Washington Business Journal, DCCK is taking over a 36,000 square foot space in the former U.S. Coast Guard headquarters. The nine-floor building is owned by an LLC that is ultimately under the umbrella of the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), according to city records. It was redeveloped in 2020 by Akridge, Western Development Corporation and Orr Partners, and is currently managed by Akridge. Occupying most of the building are apartments and retail storefronts – one of which is already leased by The Point restaurant. 

DCCK began planning for the new space about a decade ago, and it’s a bit of a change-up from its former home in the basement of the Federal City Shelter at Second Street NW and D Street NW. The Klein Center is now nestled between the riverfront to the south and several blocks of construction projects to the north. DCCK is now just “steps from” some of its biggest partners, including the Nationals and Audi Field, as well as hiring partners such as the Wharf, according to DCCK Director of Communications & Marketing Melissa Gold. 

Buzzard Point is not only near stadiums, shopping and new mixed use highrises, but also lower-income DC residents who may also benefit from their proximity to DCCK. The new facility is “at the crossroads of the communities that we serve,” said Gold. “We’re blocks from one of the neighborhoods that sees the highest rate of poverty in the city,” she added, as the kitchen has been working in James Creek and Greenleaf for years. 

At present, getting to the Klein Center is not as straightforward for many Washingtonians as it may have been at its old location. Southwest has historically been a cul-de-sac within DC, and not only because it’s bordered on two sides by water. Though Wheat Row was likely the first housing built in the new capital city in the final decade of the eighteenth century, developers and new residents quickly shunned Southwest, looking farther north in Washington for housing projects. 

Just a couple decades later, the Washington City Canal dissected the neighborhood from the rest of the city. Beset with problems from the beginning and made more or less obsolete by the invention of the railroad, the canal was filled in in the mid eighteenth century and ultimately paved over. Then, to add insult to injury, in the mid twentieth century the city razed entire blocks to put in the elevated freeway with retaining walls – I-395/695 – that we all know today. 

Still, there are options for Washingtonians outside Southwest to get to the Klein Center. DCCK offers a free shuttle from the Waterfront metro station during morning and afternoon rush hours, and Navy Yard metro station is about a mile walk. Second Street offers a protected bike lane and the 74 bus line stops in front of the building. A proposed Blue Line Loop may one day add another underground stop in Buzzard Point, but that plan is not yet determined and, needless to say, far off from completion. 

The New Headquarters

The Klein Center welcomes all entrants, including staff, through its main door at the corner of First Street and V Street to get more people interacting after the pulling back of COVID restrictions. Inside, DCCK’s third and newest cafe is tucked into the spacious lobby. Clean lines, bright colors, and glass walls help create a sense of transparency from the first step visitors take inside. The new space was designed by ZGF Architects and artist Robin Bell designed its digital donor wall. Bell is most well-known for his video works and for his provocative projections, which are often exhibited on prominent buildings.

Beyond the welcome desk and cafe are the two primary food production kitchens, and one additional food prep station. The larger of the two could house the entire operation at DCCK’s old headquarters – including kitchen, administrative, and office space – with still “a square foot or two” to spare, said Gold. 

DCCK is looking forward to being able to increase the number of Culinary Job Training graduates by 150 percent at 2121 First Street SW, taking the number yearly from around 100 to 250 in the next three to four years. The total number of graduates since DCCK’s founding in 1989 is well over 2,000. The kitchen is also creating 50 new full-time jobs and doubling its daily meal production to 25,000 nutritious, locally sourced meals. 

The second, smaller kitchen is for culinary job training. Designed to mirror the size of and boast the features of a typical professional kitchen, it is also the “footprint of the old, main kitchen.” DCCK had been producing as many as 10,000 meals a day out of a kitchen this size at its old facility. In the new culinary job training kitchen, students can access ”anything you would find in a commercial kitchen,” including equipment and instructors.

A third space, the CoBank Volunteer Zone, is where up to about 60 volunteers chop, prep, and package foods for the community. Individuals and groups come in shifts from 9am until noon every day, and DCCK is adding an evening volunteer slot as of June. CoBank, a cooperative bank serving rural America, is a longtime partner of DCCK and recently donated $2 million to fund the new Volunteer Zone.

DCCK emphasizes its new “dignified” amenities for students, staff, and volunteers. For instance, rather than having to leave belongings in “cages” and older, used lockers, modern lockers with programmable key codes are available. Other amenities include The Hub, a large lunch and break room, as well as study rooms for students who are in other degree programs.

On the second floor, there are wellness rooms that can be used for prayer, breastfeeding, or more. Previously, staff would pray “in their car, next to a trash bin or a dumpster in the parking lot,” but now, there is a “room they can reserve for themselves.” New mothers can breastfeed in “dignified, comfortable places.”

The Klein Center also boasts classroom and meeting spaces that are “fully, technically advanced,” where students meet to discuss a variety of topics. When The Southwester toured the facility, students were being led by an instructor in recovery. Many who go through the program “are working through traumas,” Gold said, but others with substance abuse or other issues benefit from the program. “That recovery support group is available to anybody in our organization,” said Gold, giving graduates access to ongoing “group support.”

DCCK has added new ways to interact with business partners and other nonprofits. In addition to conference floors on the main floor, there are additional rentable facilities on the second floor, such as a boardroom. Groups that volunteer in the morning, for instance, could reserve meeting spaces in the afternoon for company retreats. Some organizations have done a “volunteer shift in the morning, and then they rented out the classroom for the afternoon,” explained Gold. DCCK even offers catering to the public as one of its social enterprises.

The full-time staff offices on the second floor are also designed with transparency in mind. The workstations are cubicles with low walls, and partial walls along the edge allow someone to look down from the second floor to the first. 

Even before the pandemic, some staff were based at the main kitchen on Second Street, Gold said, others at a nutrition lab on Bladensburg Road, and another group at the Town Hall Arts Education Recreation Center (THEARC). “Even before COVID we were very segmented, so now it’s lovely to be able to be in this one space,” Gold added. The space is “intentionally designed” for maximum interaction.

2023 and Beyond

The move to Buzzard Point represents a major expansion for DCCK. The Klein Center expands capacity for bringing students through the program, ramps up its donations to those in need, and allows its ventures – such as the Health Corners and Healthy School Food Ventures – to grow. 

The Klein Center has some room for expanding within its walls, by rearranging workspaces to accommodate new hires. However, the remaining commercial spaces in 2121 First Street SW are either going or gone, with leases signed on many of the remaining commercial fronts. That isn’t worrying DCCK. As exciting as planning future expansion in other spaces may be, DCCK’s intention for now “is not to be decentralized” as much as possible.

The new headquarters represents more than just an expansion of services. It’s a transition that opens a host of new opportunities for DCCK. Planning began over a decade ago, but the move has come to be exceedingly well-timed. Since then, the pandemic and recent market downturn have upended the way we shop, eat, and do business, as well as financial forecasts for the future. 

DCCK has been largely isolated from the market downturn of the past year, but even it has a few investments, such as securities, on its books. Renting out spaces for companies and organizations to meet is a new revenue stream that could add some buffer room. DCCK also aspires to have one of its cafes in every ward of the city, if possible. And Gold said the Healthy Corners Venture, which currently supplies 53 stores with fresh produce on a transactional basis, could be scaled up beyond DC’s borders – nationally, even. 

Beyond opening doors for expanded revenue generation, the community kitchen looks forward to being able to continue funding its main mission through continuing community support. And it’s necessary. The rollback of COVID assistance and other programs has made the work of DCCK more needed than ever, Gold said. Many DC residents had “expanded benefits” during the Public Health Emergency, especially through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But as those provisions were rolled back over the past few months, “people had their benefits chopped, almost in half,” Gold said.

Even though the broader market has recently seen significant realized or unrealized losses in securities and other investments, the community has stepped up to make sure DCCK’s work continues. Over the past three years DCCK has seen its primary source of revenue flip from contributions to social enterprise/program revenue. Within that contribution category, however, the share of individual and corporate contributions, as well as local and foundation grants, has increased. 

DCCK is emphasizing that maximizing revenue generation is not the vision of the future, and is still reliant on donations. That said, DCCK does want to be “as self-sufficient as possible” as it scales up its community outreach and programming to further its mission according to its values. According to its website, by 2025, DCCK wants to be serving 25,000 meals per day, create 50 new jobs, triple its capacity, and generate over $200 million in annual financial impact for the community.

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