One Quick Fix for Any Communal Kitchen
In a coliving career, you’ll soon find out why it’s dynamic, interesting, and ultimately a rewarding life. However, you’ll probably want to pull your hair out first. While there are more complex issues like what I’ve called “territoriality” or being puneeted, there is one problem that I’m sure you’ll face early on.
Your fridge, one major appliance, is the center of your kitchen, and 90% of the time, the heart of your community. Everyone needs to eat, and daily fights over property (food), health risks, and even food waste can put a considerable amount of unnecessary conflict. Managing your kitchen has to be the first method to set in place after bookings because I’ve handcrafted a solve-all process. Here is my story and my solution.
In Trouble in 2012, Silicon Valley
I had been running my startup for the last seven months from Blackbox Mansion, a hacker house in Atherton, near Palo Alto. Blackbox was amazing; the house was filled with amazing people, all of them entrepreneurs, dreamers willing to change the world. We were sleeping in bunk beds, but we didn’t mind at all, even if mine was in the garage.
But in July, Fadi, the founder of Blackbox, needed to empty the house to run what would become one of the best startup programs for international entrepreneurs willing to scale their business in Silicon Valley. That meant the regular tenants (us) had to move out.
Well, that was a big bummer! After all that time, Blackbox Mansion was our home. Where would we move?
Silicon Valley is not a place where you find accommodation easily. We were a team of two, Dany and I, but after seven months, I was about to hire two more developers. It made more sense to rent our own house for the four of us instead of paying for less space at Blackbox.
What happened next is enough to write a book, and I will, but today I want to focus on what happened once we were settled in our new home.
I made a big mistake renting a four-bedroom house in Palo Alto, well out of my budget. Inspired by Blackbox, I assumed subletting two bedrooms to other entrepreneurs would lower our expenses. Filling the space the first month was easy as many ousted tenants from Blackbox moved to my new house. I had enough friends to fill the house up and pay for the first month of rent. Hey, we had our own home in Palo Alto!!
Like I’ve mentioned before, we all hate rules, especially entrepreneurs. That house was my office, and renting the free space was a means to an end, which was surviving enough to raise capital. Who would’ve known at the time that it would become the most well-known coliving in Silicon Valley and that it would be covered in freakin’ National Geographic?!
So that house started as a lawless, open paradise…or open hell; it depends on how you look at it.
I was so stupid.
I committed to renting a $7000/month house when I knew I didn’t have enough cash for the second month. Oh my God, was I stressed!
Expenses became my only concern—I’m talking about taking pictures of food prices from all supermarkets to compare them, the first one being Wholefoods! When I saw the price of a single tomato (2$), I thought it would be better to kill myself. How on earth would I make a gazpacho? (Hey, it’s religion in Spain).
The thing is, while I was obsessed with keeping my expenses low, everyone else would just open the fridge, pick up something, and cook it. After the first week, I had been spending 200 fucking dollars per day on food. I was feeding everyone!
Not only that, toilet paper was flying. (Like…not literally) But I was buying vast packages of toilet paper at Costco, the cheapest I could find, the kind of paper you’d rather use a cactus to clean yourself. And I was visiting Costco to buy toilet paper as if it were my second home.
Haha, enough about toilet paper, but I want to stress how extremely anxious I was.
Back in the day, I would cook pasta for everyone and then sit at the table. My team would eat while having heated conversations, but I could only stare at my food. I had this tunnel vision where everything apart from my spaghetti was blurred. I couldn’t hear conversations—they were echoes. And then I would think: “Fuck, these guys are eating like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re going to shit it, then use even more toilet paper!”
That’s how stressed I was.
And then… it started happening.
Your Fridge Stinks!
Nobody noticed this tiny, minor detail. Food would enter and leave the fridge. People would buy food and store it in the refrigerator, pushing everything else to the back. Then, someone else would open the door, search between the blobs of food, and maybe (if they found what they were looking for) take it. Sometimes they would see something nice and eat it without permission. Not entirely their fault; it was hard to keep track of who bought what.
After some time, people would leave the house, and their food would stay behind. That’s when the fridge started to stink to high heaven. What is the worst smell you can think of? A dead cat? Nothing compared to this.
Now what? Guess who had to spend the evening in an astronaut’s suit emptying the fridge, identifying the dead body, and cleaning? And the problem was, it happened every two weeks. The fridge was never clean; people would complain about the lack of space and, worse, about their food being stolen.
Because, let me tell you, in a coliving, food is property. If you take someone’s food without permission, it’s considered stealing.
Fridge hell was our first major issue running the new house, and something had to be done. After trial and error, we solved the problem by applying an easy fix.
My Solve-All Method
It goes like this…
When a new guest checks in as part of the onboarding process, the house manager takes them to the kitchen. We have a whiteboard stuck to the fridge door with a grid pattern drawn on it. There are logo stickers of well-known tech companies in every cell of that grid, like Facebook, WhatsApp, or Waze. With time, we change those with our ambassadors’ startup logos.
Marco, the new guest, chooses one of these logos( let’s say Waze), and we write his name next to it.
Now Marco is Waze. When he opens the fridge, all the shelves have a logo sticker assigned. It’s clear which shelf is his.
We just had one fridge for 15 guests in our first house, which meant each shelf was divided for two people. This way, one logo was assigned to each shelf half. Marco, or Waze, had an obvious label for where his food would be.
One fridge for so many people is, of course, not ideal; but in our second house, we upgraded to two fridges so that each ambassador could have an entire shelf to themselves. If the space were larger, I would have bought a professional fridge with a glass door. I love seeing clear organization.
What About Specifics?
Over time, I’ve noticed that not everyone has the same needs for fridge space. Often, it’s a cultural thing, which is good as you can plan for space ahead.
Italians, Mexicans, and those with Latin roots love to cook and need lots of space. Others prefer not to cook and buy fast food. They use the fridge to store the leftovers, and sometimes, they don’t use the refrigerator at all. Anyhow, I always prefer to provide some space to them, just in case.
Using the same principle, we classified all kitchen drawers with the same startup logos. Marco would not only get space in the fridge but also corresponding space in drawers with the Waze logo to mark them. What’s great about this system is the simplistic approach to organizing that is readily accepted.
When a new guest arrives and is assigned a logo with food already in the fridge, then we can tell right away the previous guest left without cleaning. If it’s still good, we can place the food in an “open-source food space.” Anything in there is free for the household.
When Marco leaves, part of the House Manager’s check-out process is to check his corresponding kitchen spaces (the Waze logo) and put all the food left there on the open-source shelf. If someone sees food on their shelf that shouldn’t be there, they are also instructed to put it on the open-source shelf.
I like processes that autocorrect themselves—systems that behave like a living organism.
Take Marta, for example. For this Spanish entrepreneur, extra virgin olive oil is like gold. If she mistakenly puts her olive oil bottle where it doesn’t belong, someone will see it and put it to share. When Marta sees her valuable olive oil on the open-source shelf, she will freak out and put it in her private drawer.
A side benefit of the open-source shelf is the emphasis on sharing. People know exactly where to present extra food to the community.
With this simple system, a fridge deep-clean is only necessary every six months, a considerable improvement from every two weeks. One keystone to this is an iron grip on this rule from your House Manager. If someone arrives, doesn’t get their logo, and starts using the fridge, all their food could end up on the open-source shelf. This can be a huge issue and a terrible start to their stay at your coliving. Even if someone explains the system, the new guest will have a bad memory in the kitchen, a pivotal space for making someone feel welcome.
How This Method Fits All
When I first considered this community kitchen process, I was worried about controlling the fridge madness, and my first idea was to assign numbers to guests.
It was a pragmatic thing. I wasn’t concerned about having the system look “nice.” But someone told me that numbers were boring, and if I designed it that way, it would look like a prison, assigning numbers to people. That guest was right, so I decided on using famous startup names; it worked like a charm.
When the House Manager onboards new guests, explaining the system is painless and interesting enough, the new guest is excited if they’re allowed to choose their favorite startup. This becomes a ritual and part of our culture while also serving to maintain a clean, ordered community.
It works well in our case because our guests are entrepreneurs, but imagine the possibilities for any space. Do you host chefs? Why not line up dream restaurants to inspire them? How about athletes? Choose a roster of trophy-winning teams. Each group can be excited about the logo they are aligned with.
A Word of Caution
No system is perfect, and in this case, be aware that it is not for short-term guests. Mainly because these one to two-night guests, if you allow short stays as we do, know that they don’t have time to live the full experience we provide. In those cases, providing them with the complete onboarding might be counterproductive. Most of them won’t use the fridge anyways.
Some people mention on their arrival that they don’t cook and that they won’t use any space in the kitchen. I would anyway allocate some space for them, just in case.
Mama Carlos says:
A clean, orderly kitchen is the secret to household success. If you’re running a coliving, do not ignore any home’s cornerstone, even if this is technically a commercial living space. When your kitchen is tidy, people will get the subtle hint that your House Manager is efficient and cares about the space.
Also, if something doesn’t work, fix it. Don’t get bogged down with negotiating. It won’t help anyone know how long a problem is there or who exactly started the issue. If your system needs adjustment, remember gamifying your process memorable, fun, and thus, three times more likely for your guests to pick it up.
Finally, some challenges are overlooked because the short-term solution is easy. However, these simple fixes only impart more stress in the long run. Consider each scenario as a way to improve your overall business.
An issue like the fridge is stressful, horrible, and made me want to kill myself. If I can help you avoid situations like these, then I’ve done my job.