Interview with Bella Karakis, Co-Founder and CEO of e.terra

by NYC Food Policy Editor

Bella Karakis is the co-founder and CEO of e.terra, a flexible commercial kitchen with two locations in East Harlem. Prior to e.terra, she was a co-founder of a shared commercial kitchen and food hall concept, as well as co-founder of a mobile hospitality company with 2 food truck operations, in the DC Metro area. She received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from Touro Law. An avid life-long learner and believer that knowledge is power, Bella strongly believes in supporting the community that she works and lives in, through volunteering and mentorship.

Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I want to start out by asking how you got interested in commercial kitchens, especially in East Harlem?

Bella Karakis: e.terra is a flexible commercial kitchen with 2 locations based in Harlem that provides two core services: on demand kitchen workspace and support services to all [Food and Beverage] F&B brands, customizable to the needs of each food brand and available 24/7. We launched our first location in June 2021. As a food entrepreneur with two separate ventures in the past, I myself was challenged by the lack of available commercial kitchens, and I understand first-hand the challenges faced by small food businesses.  First, for my biscotti line while living in Stamford, Connecticut, and then, years later, for a food truck operation in Northern Virginia, I needed a commercial kitchen to support my own food businesses, and neither location had a kitchen within an hour’s driving distance from our base of operations. In both cases, it truly impacted my business, making it impossible to launch and grow the biscotti line and forcing us to use our home kitchen out of desperation to support our food truck operation. My own experience both educated me and made it imperative that I focus my attention on providing the comprehensive solutions that the food and beverage industry needs.

Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as an attorney guided your interest in food businesses?

I am an experienced trademark attorney and have represented clients in many industries, including food and beverage, entertainment and fashion. I especially loved advising and mentoring small food businesses and always stood in awe of the amazing creativity behind every brand. 

But my interest in the food business is not solely stemming from my legal career.  I always had a special affinity for the F&B space because of my family background, growing up with a grandmother who was an amazing cook and baker, and a family spread across four continents as a result of wars and migration, whose culture always dictated the central hub of our gatherings to be around a dinner table.  I can safely speak for five generations (now on to number 6!) when I say that we have always been, and continue to be, obsessed with food, nutrition and exploring culture through food.

You previously co-founded a shared commercial kitchen space and other food businesses in Washington, D.C. What is different about this type of business in New York City? What is the same?

Yes, I was the co-founder of a shared commercial kitchen with two locations in northern Virginia and one in NYC.  We provided kitchen and storage rentals in all locations, with a food hall component including kiosk rentals in two of those locations. I have been able to apply the lessons learned in that prior brand of shared kitchen to e.terra. 

e.terra is the only flexible commercial kitchen in the NYC metro area that is available to our members 24/7 and the only one that can fully customize solutions for each member’s needs, whether they be a small start-up food brand that needs business development and training, a large ghost kitchen operation that needs logistics and delivery support, or a large corporate client such as Resy seeking to bring a unique dining experience to its exclusive clientele in NYC and needing a large kitchen to support its back-of-house operations. Through our partnership with the Stanley Isaacs Center, e.terra provides culinary training interns paid by the Center to our members free of charge, to help reduce employment costs for small businesses. We also actively promote member services and food through our events program as well as through our social media and community engagement, bringing business opportunities to our members. Through our Cares Program, the e.terra team volunteers on a monthly basis with various charitable organizations, such as God’s Love We Deliver, City Harvest, Rethink Food, Encore Community Services, Project Eats and Union Settlement, to support food insecurity initiatives, such as food harvesting, rescue, prep, delivery and service. 

As you mentioned earlier, e.terra has two locations in Harlem (one on Third Avenue, and another in the former Hot Bread Kitchen location in La Marqueta), not too far from the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. Why did you choose East Harlem? What about East Harlem is unique for this type of space? What have you learned about the community since starting e.terra here?

I think Harlem chose us! We had been looking for an already-existing large open-format kitchen that we could take over and retrofit for a space that could flex and accommodate multiple businesses for some time when we were introduced to a caterer based in Harlem who had been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and we wound up taking over their space, thus helping them exit their long-term lease. Having settled on our first location, we realized how essential our services are to supporting the local economy in Harlem by providing 24/7, reasonably-priced, accessible space,  allowing small businesses to launch at minimal cost in less than a month while joining a supportive, collaborative community, which is so essential for the success of a small business. The Harlem community is a vibrant one with the greatest cultural and culinary diversity of any neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC.  We have been privileged to support more than 60 businesses, on both a short- and long-term basis but have also been able to support well known entities such as Resy, Amex, Netflix, NBC, and the Today Show, as well as restaurants such as Pink Taco and Llama Inn, for a vast variety of kitchen needs, from interviews to filming to special events, staff training and menu testing. Helping customize solutions in the kitchen space is what we do!

What have you learned about entrepreneurship since starting e.terra, especially food business entrepreneurship? How feasible is it for individuals who don’t have a lot of resources to pull from to run a food business in New York City?

Starting a food business without resources or access to capital, is a herculean task.  A typical start-up does not have the capital to invest or the banking relationships or credit necessary to obtain a business loan. Landlords are primarily interested in long-term leases with personal guarantees and will want to know you have the financial backing and ability to pay, especially the first (and hardest) year, and a start-up does not have the leverage to negotiate favorable lease terms.  Build-out of kitchen infrastructure typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars at minimum, but most times significantly more, especially if it is a restaurant with a front-of-house component. A stand-alone location also means that you do not have the resources of a community to provide advice, guidance, support and resources, and it is an exceptionally painful road to travel. A stand-alone does not give a start-up the opportunity to ramp up slowly and use only that which they need, saving money on rent, build-out, equipment, large operational, maintenance and utility costs.  A vast majority of restaurants fail and close within the first three years of operation; by some estimates this number is close to 80 percent.

I heard you participated in Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Small Businesses program. Can you talk a bit about your experience with this program? What were the most valuable lessons you learned?

Where do I start??? It was a completely transformational experience to spend 13 weeks, 10 to 20 hours per week, learning, sharing and absorbing knowledge along with 33 other business owners and our amazing instructors and advisors at LaGuardia Community College. The  curriculum was developed by Babson College and provides information that is so essential for small businesses and entrepreneurs. We were introduced to the learning, the community, the network and the resources for all to thrive. I feel very privileged and honored to have been part of Cohort 38.  

A few of the valuable lessons learned: 1) Setting the right culture in a company is absolutely essential to the success of the business on all levels, from employee hiring and retention to brand development, to operations! 2) In communications, both internally and externally, EEC (being effective, efficient and compelling) rules supreme; 3) You have to understand your business financials and have them at the core of every decision you make. It’s amazing how often this is neglected by small business operations; 4) Truly understanding the leadership style of each member of the team is essential for working together effectively….and for so much more!

How do you support and uplift marginalized voices and identities at e.terra? 

e.terra membership is more than 70 percent minority/women/immigrant owned businesses.  These are the businesses that have significantly less access to resources than bigger operations.  Above all else, we provide them with a community made up of similar businesses and entrepreneurs with whom they can talk and where they can find the much-needed support and validation of their concept and their ability to succeed. We also share resources with our members, such as access to grant opportunities, learning platforms and business accelerators, and a wide range of business-support-services and employee assistance through our partnerships with non-profit organizations such as the Stanley Isaacs Center and Youth Action, Youth Build and their culinary training programs.  The e.terra team wholeheartedly believes that we are all stronger together.  Our company culture is built on collaboration, compassion, integrity and community. 

What is the most common form of support that food business entrepreneurs and startups need early on?

They need access to capital, business education and support, networking and business opportunities, and most of all, community.  As they say, it takes a village. 

What advice would you give to anyone interested in starting a food business?

Start in a shared environment such as  a flexible commercial kitchen that allows you to start quickly, pay minimally, with minimal risk, and scale at your own pace, focusing on what you do best, make amazing food and grow your business.  When you have proof of concept, scaled efficiently and built your client base AND your resource network, then you seek capital and open your own stand-alone location. 

What are your thoughts on farm-to-table models? How viable is local procurement for the entrepreneurs you help at e.terra?

The farm-to-table model is very admirable, and I wish it was scalable. For a small business, it is difficult to implement, because it takes a lot of resources and costs more in the food procurement space where prices are already suffering from inflation. There are a lot of issues to take into account, such as sourcing, logistics/delivery from small farms, being able to buy smaller quantities (where minimum purchasing terms apply) and being able to price the final product or dish so that it is not prohibitively expensive.  We have only one brand currently in our kitchen that sources gluten free flours for their gluten free line of breads from local farms, has successfully built a following at local farmers markets, and is now getting into Fresh Direct with its quality product. But it has been a challenge for some of the very reasons I mentioned above.

How do new food technologies affect the work you do at e.terra?

In our 3rd Avenue location, we installed four Rational iCombi ovens, which are tech-enabled smart ovens that include a fryer, oven, charbroiler, griddle, steamer, and more, and, in 11 square-feet of space, can replace at least four traditional commercial-grade types of equipment. These ovens are truly efficiency re-imagined, offer about 50 percent greater productivity, and reduce cooking times by about 10 percent.* This kind of high tech equipment is game-changing for our member operations and provides extreme efficiency and faster timing all in one piece of equipment, which allows us to accommodate more member operations.

What can policymakers do to help food startups succeed?

Allocate more funding to support business-accelerator programs and grant-funding, and partner with large corporations that can increase the dollars and the outreach to support small businesses.  It is crucial for small businesses to learn and excel in operational efficiencies so that they can thrive!

What do you envision for the future of the food industry?

I truly believe the flexible and ghost kitchen models will be an essential part of the food industry so that the industry can operate smarter, more efficiently and profitably.

Grew up in: Odessa, Ukraine, and Birmingham, Alabama
City or town you call home: NYC
Job title: CEO, Co-Founder of e.terra
Background and education: BA, English – University of Pennsylvania; JD, Touro Law Center; Goldman Sachs 10KSB Business Accelerator, Cohort 38
One word you would use to describe our food system: Broken
Food policy hero: Jose Andres!!!! 
Your breakfast this morning: Ellenos Passion Fruit yogurt with Starbucks French Roast coffee, Chobani plant-based creamer (chocolate hazelnut)
Favorite food: Caviar, Humboldt Fog Cheese, Aerofarms microgreens (spicy), Veglife Vegan Feta, Wave Hill Breads’ monkey bread and sourdough, SerendipiTea strawberry tea, Senbird Matcha teas, mango passionfruit tart by EmilyMadeThis_NYC, Forbidden Rice GF bread from 3×3 Provisions, and Overnight Oats with sour cherries and pistachios from Uptaco (as you can see, I am a bit obsessed with food!)
Favorite last meal on Earth: Flying Fishbone (Aruba) with my toes in the sand (and maybe even the water), at sunset
Favorite food hangout: Mary’s FishCamp, Rosemary’s East, and City Vineyard
Food policy social media must follow: @wckitchen, @godslovenyc, @cityharvestnyc, @civileats, and Jose Andres from Longer Tables (

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