Zella’s Soulful Kitchen: Bringing Healthy, Organic Soul Food to Whole Foods and Hospitals

by Amy Westervelt

For most small businesspeople, getting a product into a store like Whole Foods is a dream. But if you’re a one-woman show like Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, that dream could lead to insomnia.

Started in 2005, Zella’s Soulful Kitchen was meant to be a catering business that would eventually grow into a restaurant. Chef Dionne Knox named the Oakland business after her grandmother—a woman who made everything from scratch and brought the family together around delicious meals—and focused on creating healthy, organic versions of soul food favorites like collard greens seasoned with smoked turkey, and home baked cornbread served with local honey butter.

Soon after launching, she joined La Cocina, a local food-business incubator, for the access to an “awesome commercial kitchen” plus plenty of unexpected perks, ranging from classes taught by other members to the monthly goal-setting check-in meetings, which Knox describes as “an opportunity to take a step back from your day-to-day and think about things in a different way.”

The deal with Whole Foods is a prime example. After joining the “kitchen incubator” in 2005, Knox spent about eight months building her catering business and then took a job at someone else’s café and catering company, which took her away from her business for two years. Just over a year ago, she recommitted herself to Zella’s full-time and it was shortly after that that Whole Foods came knocking.

“It was something I never would have thought of,” Knox says. “I mean, my plan was: build the catering business and eventually get a restaurant. That was it.”

But when Whole Foods planned to open up in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood, it purchased a building without a commercial kitchen, then found it couldn’t get the permits to build one. Given that prepared foods are one of the market chain’s staples, it had to go looking for people who could make them. “They contacted La Cocina to see if there were people within the group who could prepare food for them, and myself and four others were interested, so we met with them, made them some things to try, and now we’re all supplying them with prepared foods,” Knox explains.

While she was thrilled to get her foods into the store, Knox is now finding that her other plans have had to take a back seat. Each order from Whole Foods is for 120 pounds, and she gets three orders a week. “It’s amazing and wonderful, and on the one hand it’s great because it’s business that I can handle just by myself, but on the other hand, in order to build the catering business, I need to be out there doing marketing and outreach,” she says. “That means I need to take a step back from the food preparation. But, unfortunately I’m not really in the position to hire anyone right now, so that makes it tough.”

Nonetheless, Knox says she’s working it out, partly due to the network she’s able to tap into at La Cocina. “Most of my catering jobs right now are coming through La Cocina,” Knox says.

And she’s still on track to own her own restaurant some day. After realizing that selling her food at the farmer’s market in Oakland’s Jack London Square wasn’t penciling out (“I was basically paying to be there and I can’t really afford to be doing that right now,” she says), and that another soul food restaurant was going into the permanent space she’d been eyeing there, Knox went back to focusing on catering and Whole Foods. But another opportunity came her way soon enough, again through La Cocina.

The San Francisco County General Hospital needed a café for its workers and for the 500 or so construction workers who will be onsite at the hospital for the next couple of years. The hospital’s foundation reached out to La Cocina, which set up a meeting with Knox and a few other members about the opportunity. The hospital has a large food-service truck on site that Knox describes as “huge and fully stocked – the only equipment I’d need to buy would be coffee equipment,” and a built-in clientele of 3,500 staffers plus the 500 construction workers.

Dionne Knox (Photo Courtesy Sarah Peet)

After submitting a proposal in November 2009, Knox found out last month that she’s one of the final three applicants the hospital is considering. “It’s not my dream come true, but it’s a great opportunity, and it could be a perfect way for me to build equity in my business and in my brand,” Knox says.

She’s hoping she gets an offer from the hospital, but if she doesn’t, she’s content to focus on what she’s doing already and wait for the right opportunity — even if it’s one that turns out to be a learning experience, like the farmer’s market was for her. “That’s the thing about La Cocina,” she says. “You find yourself doing things that you never thought you would do, and those things really open you up to other avenues.”


This post is the first in a series of monthly profiles of businesses associated with La Cocina, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that aims to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities. La Cocina focuses primarily on women from communities of color and immigrant communities. Their vision is that entrepreneurs will become economi cally self-sufficient and contribute to a vibrant economy doing what they love to do.

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