Welcome to Doing It Right, a new column where Eater meets chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who recognize challenges in their communities — and are actually doing something about it. In this installment, we head to San Francisco to focus on the work of La Cocina.
Low-income entrepreneurs, especially women from immigrant communities, often lack the resources to grow their small-scale food operations into thriving restaurants and businesses.
What La Cocina is doing about it:
Alicia Villanueva is a mother, an immigrant, and a successful Bay Area business owner. Her business, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, sells tamales, chiles rellenos, and “tamalito pops” at events throughout the San Francisco area, and soon, they’ll be available at all the Whole Foods stores in Northern California. “It’s amazing,” Villanueva says. “I used to sell my tamales in the street with my three kids and it was really, really hard. Now we have a factory that’s 6,000 square feet.” She says she couldn’t have done it without La Cocina.
For the past 12 years, the San Francisco-based incubator has helped women like Villanueva establish and grow their food businesses. The idea started as a collaborative effort between a few different local organizations, led by the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment. “There were a lot of women who were selling food informally on the streets or out of their homes, and [there was] a need to launch a pathway for those entrepreneurs,” says Jessica Mataka, La Cocina’s development and communications associate. An anonymous benefactor donated a 4,000-square-foot space in San Francisco’s Mission District, and La Cocina — the name for both the physical building and the incubator — was born. The incubator is led by executive director Caleb Zigas, who joined when it opened in 2005.
With La Cocina, low-income women of color — a population typically denied major advancement in the formal job market, according to Mataka — have an opportunity to move beyond wage labor and create something of their own. Entrepreneurs in the La Cocina incubator receive subsidized commercial kitchen space, technical and legal support, and access to opportunities to grow their businesses.
There are currently 33 businesses in the program. La Cocina typically works with its entrepreneurs for three to five years, but El Buen Comer owner Isabel Pazos was with the program for nine years before graduating in 2016. During that time, she received free or low-cost services valued at $1,948,705, according to Mataka. When an entrepreneur graduates, La Cocina has no ownership stake in the business.
Becoming a part of La Cocina is no easy feat. Six times each year, La Cocina hosts orientations for entrepreneurs in the community, where entrepreneurs learn how to apply to the incubator. After each application round — there are three per year — La Cocina accepts just three to five businesses into its program.
“We assess those businesses on their entrepreneurial spirit and the viability of the product or concept,” Mataka says. “Do we think it’s something that’s going to be successful in a very competitive marketplace?” This approach has created a community of alumni-owned businesses in the Bay Area food world. “I think if we were considered a restaurant group, we would be one of the largest,” Mataka says.
It would also be a successful one. Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas isn’t the only business to grow since graduating. Reem Assil opened her Oakland bakery, Reem’s California, in spring 2017, and earlier this year, she announced plans to expand with a full-service restaurant in partnership with noted Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson. Assil also appeared on the semifinalist list for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West, a first for a La Cocina incubator graduate. Plus, two-year-old Mexican restaurant El Buen Comer has earned critical praise, and the recent opening of Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai was eagerly anticipated by local media.
As the owners of these businesses achieve success, they empower others in their communities to do the same. Villanueva encouraged one of her employees to apply to La Cocina: Guadalupe Guerrero was accepted into the incubator, and she’ll soon open her Guanajuatan restaurant, El Pípila, in a brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. Other La Cocina graduates, like Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco, have similarly referred employees and family members.
La Cocina generates about half of its $2.8 million-per-year revenue through donations and the other half through its retail kiosk and gift boxes, catering brokerage fees, and ticket sales for events, like the annual La Cocina conference. It also offers a small amount of kitchen space at market rate to commercial users.
And its impact extends beyond the lives of its individual entrepreneurs and their families. The organization’s conference is “focused on how food businesses are a tool for building equitable communities,” according to Mataka, and provides guidance to small business incubators as faraway as New Zealand. And, Mataka points out, by furthering the careers of women and immigrant entrepreneurs, La Cocina is injecting some much-needed diversity into leadership positions.
“Something we feel really proud of is that nationally, only 30 percent of businesses are owned by women, but 95 percent of La Cocina businesses are opened by women,” she says. The nonprofit plans to open a food hall made up entirely of female-run businesses in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood. The food hall would “serve Tenderloin residents first and foremost,” Mataka says, but it would also offer an affordable place for La Cocina’s entrepreneurs to open their businesses after graduating, a frequent obstacle in the pricey San Francisco area.
La Cocina is, quite literally, inspiring. Omar Mamoon lived across the street from the incubator when he first moved to San Francisco in 2007. “I was working a really miserable corporate desk job, but I was volunteering at La Cocina quite a bit,” Mamoon says. “I’m not a low-income woman of color, but my mom was, so La Cocina really spoke to me.”
About five years ago, Mamoon quit his job and rented kitchen space from La Cocina as a commercial user to start his wholesale cookie-dough business Dough & Co. Seeing Villanueva’s business grow helped convince him to make that decision. “She was one person making tamales, and then she slowly grew her business and now has a factory. That for me was a big inspiration specifically,” he says. He now sells his egg-free cookie dough to restaurants, and giving back is built into his business model. For Dough & Co.’s five-year anniversary, Mamoon donated $5,000 to La Cocina.
Villanueva, meanwhile, thanks La Cocina for her success. “They are really my family. I just love them, and I can’t live without them.” she says. “I miss La Cocina, but always they are with us.”
• La Cocina [Official site]