Reign Free, founder of Red Door Catering, at her office in Oakland. Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP

Chef Reign Free, owner of Red Door Catering in Oakland, started her career in 2006 on a whim. Free, who often cooked as a means of self-soothing, prepared some food for an event at her friend’s spa business. One of the guests was so enamored with her cooking that they approached Free with an offer to have her cater a 600-person event. Free had never officially catered anything, let alone an event of that size.

“I was cooking out of my apartment for that event and I was dead tired because I kept going up and down the 50 stairs to my front door,” Free said, “but I learned that I really love to serve.”

To say that Free’s catering business has grown in acclaim since then would be an understatement. She has catered events for former President Barack Obama and recently hosted Kamala Harris at her commercial kitchen in West Oakland.

Free is now working to provide opportunities for other Black entrepreneurs through a new venture, Black Culinary Collective, which she formally announced this week. Red Door Catering will share a 5,000 square foot culinary space in West Oakland with 10 other Black food entrepreneurs. Four other businesses are already using the space, including Baby Bean Pie, The Final Sauce, Pound Bizness, and Teas with Meaning.

Members of the collective will pay a monthly fee depending on the size and scale of their business—$250 fee for small groups, and $300 for larger groups. There’s also an hourly rate of $25 for smaller services such as beverage production and use of kitchen appliances.

The collective plans to host an open house at the space this summer and set up a marketplace in the front for members to sell their goods. Black entrepreneurs and others interested in learning more about the collective can find membership requirements and sign up to receive information on its website.

The Oakland Black Business Fund, a volunteer philanthropic organization, provided the collective with a $50,000 grant to cover the first 10 participants’ expenses, including the aforementioned operation fees and production costs. The money was donated by private benefactors Eli and Elana Schuldt, the latter being the president of the Rodan Family Foundation.

Free’s relationship with the Oakland Black Business Fund began when she applied for one of their inaugural grants in June, to cover damages incurred during protests. “In working with Reign, I had the pleasure of visiting her commercial kitchen and I thought, this place is amazing,” said Damon Johnson, executive director of OakStop Alliance, the local nonprofit that incubated the Oakland Black Business Fund.

In the following months, Reign and Johnson talked about utilizing the kitchen to support other business owners in a way that would be mutually beneficial. “We see space as akin to revolution because if you’re trying to gather together to promote health and economic wellness, you need a space to do that,” Johnson said.

The Black Culinary Collective is the Oakland Black Business Fund’s largest financial partnership to date, and Johnson said they intend to continue working with Free to create more opportunities for Black food entrepreneurs in Oakland. “We will certainly look at continuing to be a future funder,” Johnson said, “but the important thing to understand is that once you’re part of the OBBF’s network, you never leave it.”

In addition to financial support through the grant, members will receive training on how to effectively operate in a commercial kitchen space, and get tips on how to scale their recipes to meet order demands. Members of the collective are also required to participate in a community service project, to be decided on at a later date. “I believe in service over self,” said Free. “It’s also my way to create a balance between work and non-work things.”

One of the participants, Kamilah Mitchell of Teas with Meaning, is excited to work with Free. “Reign is genuinely a solid person that I trust, and that’s hard in business,” she said.

Mitchell specializes in selling in a variety of herbal tea blends that she produces to have medicinal and spiritual benefits. She launched the business in 2018 after experiencing the benefits of herbal teas during her battle with cancer. “Sometimes when we talk about healing we just think about [physical] healing,” Mitchell said. “But it was also about the spiritual and emotional healing for me.” Learning how to grow and cultivate tea near Mt. Shasta was a healthy outlet during her health crisis, said Mitchell, and it became her primary source of income.

As she continues to expand her business, Mitchell is grateful to be partnered with organizations that treat Black entrepreneurship as something to be nurtured, rather than a thing to be used for superficial gain. She cited a renewed interest in Black-owned businesses in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as an example. “Sales did go up [for me] and a lot of corporations are reaching out for diversity clout, but it’s not resources that are really advancing us,” she said. “That’s why I’m ensuring I’m working with the right people, because it’s bigger than business for me.”

Like Mitchell, Reign sees the Black Culinary Collective’s value as something more than making money. “The community has shown up for us this past year. My clients, my neighbors—everyone has been so helpful—so the least we can do is give back.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.