Lawrence’s Test Kitchen
by Alexandra Pecci, North Shore Magazine
RTK gives restaurant entrepreneurs a chance to test out their business ventures in a high-end space while also contributing to Lawrence’s economic development.
On a Friday afternoon in the heart of Northern Essex Community College’s urban Lawrence campus, El Encanto restaurant is doing a brisk lunchtime business. Students wearing backpacks and women in business attire fill the tables, their plates boasting authentic Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo, a green plantain dish. The restaurant is light and bright, with comfortable upholstered chairs and a sleek, modern décor.
Across town the next day, another restaurant, CocoRay’s, is even busier, serving up tacos, smoothies, salads, soups, and Puerto Rican fare like pernil al horno (roasted pork shoulder) in a cozy, modern-looking space. As a taco order comes up, the owner, Ray Gonzalez, offers his signature sauces to go with it, a mild green one and a red one, along with a disclaimer that the red one is super-hot. “I warned you once,” he says with a mischievous smile.
The red sauce is hot in every way—fiery and delicious—and so is CocoRay’s, which opened in May 2018. Although CocoRay’s and El Encanto appear, at first glance, to have little in common aside from their Lawrence ZIP codes and friendly owners, they’re both part of the Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK), a business incubator and restaurant popup on Northern Essex’s Lawrence campus.
“It’s a golden ticket because there are so many budding food entrepreneurs. But to really test out a product, there’s a lot of barriers to entry,” says Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, a public-private partnership for economic development in and around Lawrence. “They might have ideas, but they might not always have the assets. This is really a launching pad.”