As the recently appointed executive director for Propel Kitchens, Kisha Lee spends no two days alike. Determined to keep the burgeoning startup on track amid a challenging time for the food industry, she not only leads the organization but also rolls up her sleeves and leans into the daily grind — cooking, loading trucks, even driving trucks and more, depending on what is needed.
“It’s some of the hardest work I have ever done, and it’s the blessing of my life,” says Lee, a University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna who serves as president of the Ladue Board of Education.
Propel’s mission is ambitious. Operating from a newly constructed, fully equipped 4,500-square-foot commercial kitchen inside the Carter Commons development in Pagedale, it seeks to address health and wealth disparities within the St. Louis Promise Zone by providing its residents with real-world experience in large-scale, institutional food service. Utilizing a “learn and work” educational model, Propel’s major clients include Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University, as well as several charter schools across the city.
“There is no other place in the region that does production cooking in the community, volume cooking, like we do,” says Yvonne Sparks, a St. Louis civic leader and consultant who chairs Propel’s board of directors. “Even if someone comes in with restaurant experience, they have not been trained to do this.”
And the unique model is changing lives. Take Carlos Hayden Jr., who started with Propel last January. Since joining the team, he has taken steps to earn his GED diploma, buy a car and move to University City to be closer to work. Not to mention, “he is a sponge in the kitchen,” Lee says. His exceptional dedication to every facet of Propel’s production process recently led to his promotion as kitchen lead and delivery driver. Lee describes Hayden as a devoted father and one of Propel’s hardest-working, longest-running employees — in essence, “the model of why this program exists.”
Initial conversations about Propel’s unique concept began in 2018 when the community development organization Beyond Housing was making plans for Carter Commons as part of its 24:1 Initiative. The focus of 24:1 is addressing challenges for residents living within the geographic boundaries of the Normandy School District. (This area overlaps with the federally designated promise zone, which was identified as part of a national program to invest in under-resourced municipalities across the United States.)
Barry Maciak, a consultant and social entrepreneur-in-residence at Saint Louis University with extensive experience in workforce development, led research efforts for the project and began to build relationships with other nonprofit food providers in the St. Louis area. After several years of brainstorming, information gathering and construction, the kitchen opened in July 2021.
Today, Propel is barely over a year old as an operating entity, but it is accomplishing a great deal with a small team. David Murphy, a Propel board member and the regional manager of Bon Appétit Management Company, leveraged Bon Appétit’s decades-long partnership with Washington University to secure a contract between the new nonprofit and the university. Under the arrangement, Propel cooks-in-training prepare a set of commissary items for WashU dining halls, including soups, sauces, meats and deli meats. This program is rapidly growing, according to Lee, who says production volume this fall has tripled that of the spring semester.
“Our relationship with Bon Appétit is important because it is a formal business contract, so the people in our kitchen are getting real-world preparation,” Sparks adds. “They are not only learning the cooking aspect, but the necessity of being prompt, efficient, meeting quality guidelines and ensuring that we get good feedback from the customer.”
Bon Appétit is committed to hiring all graduates of Propel’s training program, she says. Beyond stable employment, the company also has pledged its commitment to providing career pathways with higher-than-minimum-wage benefits, ongoing professional development and opportunities for advancement.
Propel’s partnership with Washington University is also addressing students’ demands for more plant-based culinary options while supporting Black- and family-owned food entrepreneurs. These efforts intersect via a new food cooperative, created by Propel, called the Plant-Based Artisan Network. Its members include North Sarah Food Hub and Three Vegan Brothers, a Black-owned startup that produces vegan cheese. Through its connection to Propel, this up-and-coming family business has gained access to the university’s retail shelves.
Propel’s partnership with Saint Louis University is also central to its mission of improving economic and health equity through food. Lee’s team is currently managing SLU’s Salus Center Kitchen, which provides school lunches to several nearby charter schools and daycares, including major client City Garden Montessori School. “Everyone has seen a tremendous difference since we’ve taken over that program,” Lee says. “We’ve increased the menu options and developed better relationships with the school clients that we’re serving.”
In October, Propel will train its first full cohort of cooks via a pilot educational program with St. Louis Community College–Forest Park. Eight participants will enroll in an 11-week, non-credit course covering basic food fundamentals, which includes academic training on STLCC Forest Park’s campus, supplemented by hands-on work experience in Propel’s kitchen.
“It was important to us that this was a non-credit course,” Lee explains. “Some of the people we’re targeting do not meet the entry requirements for a community college, such as having a high school diploma.” For those who do meet such requirements, their coursework can transfer into a credit or degree program.
As with Propel’s current team, these students will have a direct line to career opportunities within the St. Louis food scene. “Restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs around the city are calling me daily, knowing that we’re training people,” Lee says. “They are ready to snatch them up and put them to work.”
This first cohort will give Lee, Sparks and other leaders of the organization a chance to test the logistics of the training model and work out any kinks, but their overall focus remains crystal clear: creating a place where everyone has an opportunity to grow. This, in turn, transforms entire communities.
“When everyone is lifted, the entire region is lifted,” says Sparks. “We are working with people who have been overlooked, discounted and underestimated, and so what we pour into them has a very high return on investment — not only for them, but for the community at large.”
This idea bears out in Carlos Hayden’s journey, whose evolution illustrates Propel’s capacity for transformation. Though he continues to face challenges, he is overcoming them one day at a time with the program’s support. “Despite whatever may be going in his personal life, he always shows up with a killer smile,” Lee says. “He is a quick study who displays leadership capabilities and a willingness to learn new things. He will accomplish what he sets out to do.”
Employees like Hayden help Propel to succeed on an organizational level, fulfilling its goal of being the premier training program for food service in the St. Louis region. “Food and food production is at the core of our basic needs, something required for us to live each and every day,” Lee says. “As a food service provider, we exist to give people an opportunity to be self-sustaining, to provide for their families, to provide for their community. In essence, we exist to change the lives of those who come through our doors.”
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Learn more about Propel Kitchens or apply for a job on their website.