In La Cocina’s large, commercial kitchen, three women joke with each other, their laughter amplified by the room’s high ceilings and brushed steel fixtures. They carefully dust powdered sugar on a fresh batch of alfajores, pastry-style cookies filled with dulce de leche, a caramel-like filling made from heated milk. Preparing for an upcoming local farmer’s market, these women are part of one of the 22 small food businesses that work with the self-proclaimed “incubator kitchen” located in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District.
Spanish for “the kitchen,” the idea for La Cocina first originated in 1999 because of the lack of affordable kitchen space in the city. It drew its inspiration from the ethnically diverse and economically vulnerable neighborhood that, according to the people at La Cocina, thrives in part due to the many small informal businesses that serve the community.
Six years later—and thanks to organizations like Arriba Juntos, The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, and The Women’s Foundation of California—the incubator kitchen was born out of a belief that a community of natural entrepreneurs, given the right resources, can create self-sufficient businesses that benefit themselves, their families, and the communities and places around them.
These days, La Cocina serves as a platform and support system for entrepreneurs to launch, formalize, or expand food businesses. “Immigrant and low-income women have often used food as an income-patching mechanism as a way to make ends meet,” said Caleb Zigas, director of operations for the non-profit. “La Cocina’s goal is to help the transition from using food as income-patching to asset generation.” That is, to create viable businesses and livings for the entrepreneurs.
For all La Cocina’s friendliness and accessibility—picture staff members walking around in concert t-shirts and jeans, laughing about how their parents couldn’t live without Starbucks Ready-Brew instant coffee mugs—all program applicants must meet rigorous sets of economic and social criteria, in addition to performing several pre-incubation processes that include business planning and benchmarking.
Zigas was quick to concede that for many of the people that come to them who are used to cooking out of their kitchens and selling on the informal, street-food market, the idea of a business plan can seem quite foreign. He then slyly added that a big part of his job was translating, no doubt alluding to the fact that a large portion of the Mission District’s inhabitants speak English as a second or even third language. Translating to Zigas, however, goes beyond language into concepts and motivation—why creating marketing strategies and defining operations solutions matter. “And that’s why we particularly focus on those with strong entrepreneurial spirit,” Zigas added.
With only four full-time staff members, La Cocina couldn’t survive without its own community support, from the business planning organizations to members of the food industry who provide technical assistance with production equipment. La Cocina assesses applicants on three main factors: entrepreneurial spirit, product quality, and product viability—each one hinging as importantly on the ultimate success of a food venture as another.
La Cocina has graduated three businesses since its started in 2005, with several more in the pipeline, meaning many once-disenfranchised entrepreneurs have created or are close to establishing self-sufficient food businesses. One such has even branched out nationally, offering quick meals and healthy, natural snacks at places like Whole Foods, Target, and Shaw’s throughout the country.
What Does Sustainability Mean for La Cocina?
Veronica Salazar, who runs El Huarache Loco, specializes in the typical street food of Mexico City. Calling it “Bringing DF to SF,” she can be found most weekends at a local farmer’s market or on catering gigs, smilingly serving handmade stuffed tortillas or horchata or chorizo and eggs to eagerly-awaiting customers. Last year, she was asked to participate in Slow Food Nation, an event held over Labor Day weekend that was attended by over 85,000 people.
Up until then, very few people even knew that Salazar used organic ingredients in her products. When Zigas asked her why she didn’t advertise the fact that nearly all her ingredients were locally-sourced and organic, she responded that often working class communities are turned off by terms like “organic.” But when she thought about what organic actually meant, it resonated deeply with her. “She said it was like food was back home,” Zigas added, a sentiment he seemed particularly drawn to himself. Similarly to how Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, talks about how we should focus less on using terms like sustainable and green and actually figure out what the ideas mean, using terms like “organic” doesn’t really mean much if emphasis isn’t placed on the quality of the product, and the understanding of where it came from and how.
La Cocina is also a certified green business, though it doesn’t require that all the businesses it works with to necessarily be as green. They would rather serve as a bridge. “Once businesses are exposed to it, they begin to consider sustainability in a new way,” said Zigas. And La Cocina encourages the easier things cooks can do in the mean time, like composting kitchen scraps, which don’t necessarily serve as economic barriers to entry for many of the entrepreneurs.
Celebrating Street Food
In a city filled with foodies, it’s hard to avoid La Cocina’s influence in San Francisco these days. Zigas has been at La Cocina since it opened its doors, and one of the greatest rewards for him has been to see these businesses increasingly being considered a part of the mainstream food economy in San Francisco, a city that’s consistently considered one of the best food destinations in the country.
The non-profit will be hosting its first annual Street Food Festival early in August, showcasing many of the businesses currently in incubation. The one day event will also feature a silent auction with prizes ranging from gift certificates to several well-known restaurants throughout the Bay Area to even a “day-in-the-kitchen” experience with the staff from Chez Panisse. For more information, go to lacocinasf.org or sfstreetfoodfest.com.