Dubuque nonprofit to open 2nd location with community kitchen

A popular Dubuque nonprofit will open a second location that will serve as a community kitchen.

Convivium Urban Farmstead, located at 2811 Jackson St., is in the midst of planning to renovate its new location at 2900 Central Ave. That site, along with providing rental commercial kitchen space, also will serve as the location for the organization’s weekly distribution of free meals and offer pop-up restaurant spaces for local entrepreneurs.

Convivium Urban Farmstead was opened in 2014 by couple Leslie Shalabi and Mike Muench.

Shalabi said the nonprofit originally envisioned including community kitchen space at the Jackson Street site that could have been used by prospective chefs and restaurant owners without them needing to make a significant investment. However, as the site became home to a restaurant, cafe and gardens, it became clear that the community kitchen portion only would be possible at another site.

“We realized this is not going to work,” Shalabi said. “Then, there was this building that was very close to Convivium, and we thought we could try to turn that into a community kitchen space.”

The building at 2900 Central Ave. dates back to 1919 and previously held the restaurant Uncle Timmy’s, with the second floor consisting of apartment space. But the first-floor restaurant space has not been a licensed food establishment since 2015, according to the City of Dubuque.

It was purchased by Convivium’s leaders in September 2019 for $85,000, according to city records. Shalabi said her organization intends to invest $100,000 to $150,000 in interior and exterior repair and renovations.

She added that the new location will continue Convivium’s mission of revitalizing and improving Dubuque’s North End neighborhood. The community kitchen portion, along with potential pop-up restaurant space, will serve as the catalyst of potential future restaurants and food service businesses.

“We get calls all the time asking if they can rent our kitchen, so we know there is a need,” Shalabi said. “These types of kitchens exist in other cities, and they typically do well.”

Shalabi said the commercial kitchen in the new location will be designed primarily to support high volume food production. Convivium also will use the space to serve as the serving location for the nonprofit’s weekly Community Casserole program, where it distributes free casseroles to local residents in need.

Dubuque City Council members recently approved a $10,000 grant for facade improvements to the property, as well as a $10,000 planning and design grant.

“This stretch of Central Avenue has very few food options for residents,” stated a memo from Dubuque Economic Development Director Jill Connors in support of the grant funding for the project. “This project could serve as a pilot program for similar redevelopment efforts. The restoration and unique use will hopefully spur additional investment in the area. The project may also provide a successful model to address other food deserts within Dubuque.”

Shalabi said a $20,000 grant toward the project also was awarded by Dubuque Racing Association.

While the DRA grant requires that the renovation work be completed by the end of December, Shalabi estimated that the new location likely won’t open until the first quarter of 2022. She added that the new site also will prompt Convivium to hire more employees, though she couldn’t specify how many.

Dan LoBianco, executive director of Dubuque Main Street, praised Convivium’s new project, arguing that the addition of cheap commercial kitchen space will benefit many residents wishing to serve food to the public.

“If you are looking to sell something like canned goods at the farmer’s market, having commercial kitchen space is really important,” LoBianco said. “I think it’s a great use for a building in the North End that was previously empty.”