Updated: Jul 29, 2022
Food entrepreneurs Derrick and Abena Allen pour passion and family history into every bottle of their signature sauce, as members of the Wilmington Kitchen Collective’s inaugural cohort
When Abena Allen tells you that the main ingredient in the food she prepares is love, it’s hard to doubt her sincerity. After all, she and her now husband Derrick catered their own wedding.
She’ll also tell you that the chance encounter that led her to meet Derrick was a bit of divine foreshadowing, because their introduction also involved food.
Abena had arrived in Philadelphia from her native Tennessee to visit relatives in the area, and instead of allowing anyone to pick her up from the airport, she insisted on taking the train so she could see a bit more of the city. And, she was hungry. So she stopped in Reading Terminal to explore its abundant offerings, and while waiting for a table at one of the restaurant stalls, she met Derrick.
His part of the story takes off on the wings of necessity. After a home kitchen renovation prompted him to toss out his stove, Derrick began preparing all of his meals on an outdoor grill. And every great meat needs a comparable sauce…a sauce that Derrick jokes has 22 ingredients, which makes it twice as tasty as a certain famous franchise that only boasts half as many herbs and spices.
Abena is also quite familiar with spice racks and stoves. Back home in Nashville, her mother and grandmother have held sway over the tastebuds of patrons of one of the city’s most popular restaurants for the past three decades. Abena recalls studying their ability to keep a commercial kitchen moving at a brisk pace without compromising quality, and still finding a way to make sure anyone in the neighborhood who passed through their home left with a full belly. The family also catered private events frequently, so catering her own wedding was a no-brainer.
As a newly-married couple, Derrick and Abena began exploring recipes with one another. And when they were particularly pleased with a new concoction, Abena would tell Derrick, “We’ll have to do this one on the truck!” They had discussed putting their wares on four wheels, but had no solid plan for purchasing a truck in the immediate future. An aunt just happened to have a fully-equipped food truck that she was willing to part with, which inspired the couple to light a fire under their plans.
Then, a global pandemic hit.
The shutdowns and strains of 2020 proved to the Allens that there was no time better than now to move forward with their vision of greater financial security and creating a solid foundation for their food business. With a young son named Nasir now in the picture, there was even greater motivation to build something lasting as a legacy that he can grow into, just as Abena learned alongside her elders.
Enter the Wilmington Kitchen Collective.
With the assistance of the Collective, Abena and Derrick have received step-by-step guidance that has proven invaluable to these early-stage entrepreneurs. Each member of the Collective’s inaugural cohort receives personalized coaching and support. For the Allens’ venture DNA Food Services, that support included reimbursement of the costs to properly license their business and food truck, which can prove to be a significant barrier to entry for small start-ups. The Small Business Development Center at the University of Delaware not only pointed Abena to the Collective as a resource, but is also walking the couple through the often-confusing language and multi-step process of obtaining their licenses and certifications. Though the regulations are necessary, the process can be frustrating and exhausting. The personal guidance and mentorship provided through Collective membership can be the deciding factor for entrepreneurs to get beyond the idea stage to realize the fulfillment of their vision.
During a recent interview with public radio station WHYY-FM, Derrick was very candid about how instrumental this assistance has been, “Without the Kitchen Collective, we would not have had the initiative to start our own business. It probably would not have happened.”
Construction of the commercial kitchen facility that will be the anchor for DNA Food Services and other cohort members is scheduled to be completed in mid-July. And as public spaces continue to reopen and gatherings begin to be rescheduled, Derrick and Abena have a new website and social media presence coordinated by Collective members to help them get orders rolling in.
It also doesn’t hurt when your company pitch man is a dimpled toddler with a killer smile.
As the official start of summer is upon us, think of DNA Food Services’ Philly Smoke SoCo BBQ sauce to help spice up whatever you’re throwing on the grill. You can link directly to DNA and other cohort members who are set-up to take online orders from this link: https://www.wilmingtonkitchencollective.com/order-from-the-collective
Derrick, Nasir and Abena are serving up soul food, with the not-so-secret ingredient of love in each mouthful.
For more information on the Kitchen Collective’s mission, partner organizations, and other resources, visit them online at www.wilmingtonkitchencollective.com