By any measure, it’s a banner year for La Cocina. The nonprofit food incubator’s graduates are enjoying an unprecedented level of commercial and critical success. Two alumni of the culinary program, which is designed to serve low-income entrepreneurs, mostly immigrant women and women of color, have been nominated for James Beard Awards, the food world equivalent of the Academy Awards. Here’s looking at you, Nite Yun of Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai and Reem Assil of her eponymous Arab bakery, both bright, flavor-and-spirit-filled additions to Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Yun’s house specialties include fragrant noodle soups and meaty dishes featuring ingredients such as prahok, a fermented fish paste that packs an umami punch. Meanwhile, Assil’s puffy man’oushe, a za’atar-flecked flatbread, proves an ideal vehicle for dipping in Reem’s muhammara, a creamy roasted red pepper, walnut, and pomegranate molasses spread.
La Cocina is also branching out beyond its Mission District nest. The organization is about to break ground on a food hall in the Tenderloin. The La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, slated to launch in January 2020, will feature seven La Cocina businesses. In June of this year, the cookbook We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream debuts, showcasing the signature dishes and origin stories of 43 La Cocina program participants. In its pages you’ll find recipes for hearty pupusas and pozole, comforting fried chicken and cheese grits, delicate momos and misos, and sweet-tooth-satisfying alfajores and tres leches cupcakes. Interspersed throughout are personal narratives with recurring themes: home cooking from a mother’s or grandmother’s tradition; carving out a niche in the Bay Area’s culinary landscape; and bootstrapping a budding food business as a struggling single mom, recent arrival, or both.
Recent La Cocina graduates have opened brick-and-mortar restaurants including El Pípila in SoMa and Besharam in Dogpatch last year, and El Buen Comer in Bernal Heights in 2016. Look for new restaurants from La Cocina veterans Nepalese-inspired Bini’s Kitchen, also in SoMa, on the ground level of an affordable housing complex, and Malaysian-influenced Mahila by Azalina’s in Noe Valley in the former Contigo (RIP) location. In 2018, a La Cocina food hub opened at UC Berkeley’s Student Union, featuring five entrepreneurs: Noodle Girl (Vietnamese-flavored soups), Old Damascus Fare (traditional Syrian food), El Mesón de Violeta (Chilean empanadas), Pinky & Red’s (soul food sandwiches), and A Girl Named Pinky (cakes and cookies).
All these developments in addition to La Cocina’s ongoing catering service, run out of its commercial kitchen headquarters, and a retail kiosk at the Ferry Building that features packaged savory snacks and sweet morsels from graduate businesses such as Clairesquares, Kika’s Treats, NeoCocoa, Sabores del Sur, Estrellita’s Snacks, and Love & Hummus.
Wait, There’s More
La Cocina also birthed the annual San Francisco Street Food Festival—launched in 2009 as social media began to transform how food producers communicated with consumers hungry for culinary innovation. The fall event with a block party vibe proved so successful it relocated in 2015 from its Folsom Street stomping ground to a venue that can accommodate dozens of vendors and tens of thousands of revelers: the Power Station in Dogpatch.
Since opening its doors in 2005, La Cocina (Spanish for “the kitchen”) has had a hand in helping launch almost 120 food businesses, whose entrepreneurs have gone on to open more than 30 brick-and-mortar locations: about half in San Francisco and the other half around the Bay Area. Its diverse portfolio goes beyond street food fare, pop-up suppers, and stand-alone restaurants. Think a wholesale business that produces 40,000 tamales a month and sells to 44 Whole Foods (Hayward-headquartered Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas), a mini-empire of onigiri restaurants (Onigilly, with five Bay Area locations and counting for the Japanese rice balls business), and—it doesn’t get much more niche than this—an edible insect packaged-snack producer (Don Bugito, which sources product from its own cricket farm in West Oakland).
La Cocina is going through transitions as it stretches out during adolescence. Call it a challenge of its own growth. The organization is hiring in key roles, expanding out of its comfort zone, and seeking to better capitalize on market opportunities for its entrepreneurs. The seasoned La Cocina leadership—the organization is helmed by executive director Caleb Zigas and deputy director Leticia Landa—also wants to do more industry consulting. (It turns out there is demand for the secret sauce recipe to running a successful incubator business for food entrepreneurs.)
The nonprofit is thriving against an unpredictable terrain right outside its kitchen door, including worrisome political instability, national discourse disparaging immigrants, and worsening economic disparity. How, then, does this small, scrappy business expand while still meeting the needs of its clientele, who require a delicate balance of professional hands-on support and personal hand-holding? And in a world where gender, race, age, class, and immigration status all influence an individual’s ability to make money and build wealth, how can La Cocina keep growing while continuing to stay closely connected to the diverse group of individuals it shepherds on their way to economic self-sufficiency and marketplace resilience?
That remains to be seen, but La Cocina has a cheering squad rooting for its continued success, including many of the Bay Area’s top chefs. “I have been a part of La Cocina for over 10 years and have developed a deep relationship with the organization, including many of the graduates,” says former La Cocina board member and two-time James Beard Award winner Traci Des Jardins, whose flagship San Francisco restaurant Jardinière recently closed after a 21-year run. “La Cocina provides a platform for those who might be looked over, raising them up, and giving them the confidence and resources to succeed,” says Des Jardins.
“Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we support women in the culinary industry, allowing their voices to be heard and their unique cuisines enjoyed.”
Read our profiles of La Cocina graduates who have opened restaurants in the Bay Area:
This Is Us
Naturally, Leticia Landa, who has been on staff at La Cocina since 2008, chooses to chat about incubating businesses over lunch at a program entrepreneur’s restaurant. She suggests D’Maize, on 24th Street in the Mission, an easy walk from the La Cocina office. Landa, a thoughtful, soft-spoken thirtysomething who shies away from the spotlight, talks up the restaurant’s pupusas (thick cornmeal-stuffed flatbreads popular in El Salvador).
D’Maize is straight out of La Cocina casting: an unflashy, immigrant-run family affair that serves tasty, affordable food. The owners, Salvadoran couple Zenaida Merlin and Luis Estrada, started out selling pupusas on Mission District streets before finding a home in the former Casa Sanchez space on 24th Street, where another immigrant couple—Roberto and Isabel Sanchez from Mexico—launched a tortilla chip empire that has been running for almost 100 years.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to elevate our entrepreneurs. The forthcoming cookbook and marketplace are two examples of that,” says Landa, the daughter of Mexican immigrant business owners who grew up speaking Spanish at home in Austin, Texas, and on holidays spent in Mexico City. “We’re very focused on finding ways for our entrepreneurs to make money,” says Landa, who identifies as Mexican and American (as distinct from Mexican American).
Plenty of opportunities come La Cocina’s way. The organization has nurtured strong connections and a loyal following and has grown from a staff of 1.5 and a budget of $400,000 to a staff of 11 full-time employees, nine part-timers, and a $3 million budget. The nonprofit is about to add another seven full-time staff members to its team. “That’s a really big change. It’s good, and we have the funding and capacity to do it,” says Landa. “But we’re going from this little family-sized workplace to something bigger.” It’s a matter, she says, of balancing what’s familiar and comfortable with meeting a need and accommodating growth.
La Cocina is currently recruiting for key development and earned-income positions to free up Landa, Zigas, and other staffers to focus more on programmatic matters and less on raising the funds to keep the lights on. “We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve been able to do the things that come to us. People contact us for catering or corporate gift boxes or incubator consulting,” says Landa. “But we really haven’t had the time, energy, or capacity to pitch, pursue, and sell. We want to be able to do that, to dream, strategize, and search out the best opportunities for our entrepreneurs.”
A Harvard graduate and anthropology major, Landa took a gap year to attend culinary school in Paris, and spent time abroad in college in India and China. She has always been curious about culture and cuisine, and the ability of women to find economic independence through food. At La Cocina, over 90 percent of businesses are woman-owned. In comparison, women hold 21 percent of head chef roles across the country, according to Landa. La Cocina spans an ethnically diverse clientele: in the kitchen, many languages are spoken, including Spanish, Tagalog, Farsi, Khmer, Vietnamese, Russian, Gujarati, and Nihongo.
The organization seeks to open doors for a demographic frequently shut out of business ownership, in an area that is costly, competitive, and experiencing a growing wealth disparity. The San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward area ranks a lowly 84th out of 100 regions in the country for economic inclusion, based on a widening race-related earnings gap over the past decade, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.–based policy research center.
A Focus on Food and Finances
La Cocina staff and volunteer industry experts offer a curriculum that covers product development, technical training, social media and marketing assistance, and, crucially, connections to capital. They provide hands-on help with all the myriad details that go into running a food business: kitchen hoods and human resources, branding and best practices, permits and payroll. “Every day is different. I could field a question about changing a logo, then another about a special permit use. Sometimes equipment breaks or someone’s kid is sick. We deal with it all,” says Landa. “And incubating an El Salvadoran restaurant business is totally different from incubating a vegan cheese business, which is totally different from incubating a tamales food company,” she says. “You’re dealing with different people with different experience, language, education, skills, culture, and food. That’s where the anthropology part of my brain comes in handy. I’m constantly learning and constantly trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes.” The mentorship is labor intensive and mostly one-on-one.
Participants also have access to La Cocina’s commercial kitchen space at affordable rental rates. Clients are encouraged to develop sales opportunities through outlets such as farmers markets, La Cocina’s catering program, the mobile food event organizer Off the Grid, and CUESA’s farmers markets at the San Francisco Ferry Building and Jack London Square in Oakland.
Given their track record, La Cocina businesses aren’t a hard sell. “No organization has been as successful as La Cocina at small-business development for food makers because of its single and unique focus on training and providing business opportunities for women, people of color, and new immigrants,” says Marcy Coburn, chief executive officer of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, or CUESA. “These folks were historically overlooked in the Bay Area food scene even though they are—and have always been—integral to the vibrant, delicious, and transformative food experiences we enjoy here every single day.” Coburn’s current favorite farmers market lunch comes courtesy of La Cocina entrepreneurs: kuku (a Persian-style frittata) from Oyna Natural Foods followed by a mini seasonal fruit cheesecake made by Crumble & Whisk.
A longtime La Cocina supporter offers a recent historical perspective. In the heat of the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of talented, emerging edible entrepreneurs were selling food on the street to survive, but they didn’t know how to create a pathway to become part of the food industry establishment, says Off the Grid founder and CEO Matt Cohen, who volunteered at the first San Francisco Street Food Festival. “That’s where La Cocina has had such a positive impact. They helped to transform these people making delicious food into businesspeople as well as food entrepreneurs,” says Cohen. “They’re really successful at identifying the right people with a niche product and helping them find the right venue.” Off the Grid has worked with dozens of La Cocina participants, whom Cohen says experience typical newbie food entrepreneur growing pains such as translating home cooking into volume production in a commercial kitchen, hiring and handling staff, and adapting to the reality of daily service.
Without La Cocina, the Bay Area would be a lot less tasty. Cohen counts Bini’s Kitchen’s momos (Nepali dumplings) as the best in the city; he’s also a fan of Reem’s flatbreads and Los Cilantros’s tacos. “La Cocina is rightly recognized for its leadership role in the San Francisco food community and beyond, and it is crucial to keeping niche food businesses incubating in a city with an affordability crisis,” he says. “They allow people who wouldn’t normally be able to take financial risks to start a business the ability to do so.” The businesses also create jobs, feed families, and add vibrancy and diversity to urban life.
La Cocina has weathered the affordability crisis plaguing low-income residents and nonprofit cultural organizations in San Francisco post-tech sector boom largely because the building it calls home is made possible by a generous anonymous donor. The rent on the 4,000-square-foot space is “super low,” says Landa. And that’s key. In 2018, commercial rent in San Francisco hit a record high of $81.25 per square foot, effectively pricing out aspiring working-class food producers. Commercial kitchen rates in San Francisco can reach as high as $45 an hour. La Cocina rents out space in its 2,200-square-foot kitchen at $12.50 and $15 an hour, to incubating businesses, based on the number of hours used.
There are still hefty operating costs to cover. La Cocina generates 50 percent of its income through revenue from its catering services, gift boxes, Ferry Building kiosk, Street Food Festival, and kitchen rental. About $800,000 of income comes from foundation grants, from such organizations as the James Irvine Foundation, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, Levi Strauss Foundation, Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, and Economic Justice Fund. An additional $250,000 comes from individual donors.
Money is a constant consideration. The organization sniffs out under–market value locations, points budding businesses to financial resources, and helps connect entrepreneurs to income sources both large and small. Its goal is for each entrepreneur to become financially stable and remain afloat in an industry notorious for tiny profit margins. “I know how hard it is to open a restaurant, and anyone taking that on needs all of the help they can get,” says Sarah Rich, chef/owner of two-Michelin-starred Rich Table and RT Rotisserie, who has cohosted dinners with La Cocina graduates Isabel Caudillo of El Buen Comer and Binita Pradhan of Bini’s Kitchen. Thanks in part to La Cocina, Caudillo and Pradhan were able to turn their skills and love of cooking into a business that not only supports them and their families but also creates jobs, adds Rich.
But La Cocina is not just focused on the bottom line.
The nonprofit believes in the power of community—from collaborating with accomplished restaurant chefs to mentoring fellow incubator program participants to lift everyone up. La Cocina graduates cultivate change in the industry by creating job opportunities for overlooked immigrant groups, paying employees above minimum wage or when business is slow, and offering transportation assistance, emergency childcare funds, and paid vacations.
On a heart level, the organization’s vision is for every entrepreneur who goes through the program to be able to make a living doing what they are passionate about: preparing food from their countries and cultures and sharing a little of themselves, one delicious dish at a time.
“It’s great that Nite and Reem have James Beard Award nominations and have gotten a lot of press,” says Landa. “It’s easy to identify a few superstars. But the cookbook is one way of showing that there are so many stories out there, so many talented entrepreneurs producing amazing food. I want people to look around them and see all these small businesses they can support. It means so much to the entrepreneurs, their staff, and the local economy. It’s those hidden places I want people to find.”
What does adolescence look like for La Cocina? It’s a time of transitions and change and hopes for the future. On the long-term wish list: securing more office space, including in the East Bay, where a lot of program candidates live or work or can afford to run their businesses; finding more locations in San Francisco and elsewhere around the Bay where graduating businesses can thrive; and having the chance to share their model with more like-minded souls around the United States and across the globe.
La Cocina staff have already consulted on food business incubator concepts in diverse locations, including Salt Lake City, London, Ukraine, and New Zealand, where The Kitchen Project in Auckland has graduated its first cohort and selected a second set. “It’s so gratifying to watch people doing this kind of work in a totally different context,” says Landa, of the New Zealand program, which has a focus on elevating Maori, Pacific Islander, and immigrant food producers.
The June launch of the La Cocina cookbook will spark a series of chef dinners and events around the country this summer and fall, including the organization’s eighth spoken-word salon in the F&B: Voices from the Kitchen series, this one on the fitting theme of recipes.
And, if all goes according to plan, in January 2020 the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace is slated to open its doors in a tough corner location in the Tenderloin. The 7,000-square-foot marketplace at 101 Hyde Street, the site of a former post office that has long been empty, will include a shared commercial kitchen space.
La Cocina Municipal Marketplace will feature seven La Cocina businesses, a mix of seasoned veterans: Estrellita’s Snacks (pupusas and arepas), Bini’s Kitchen (momos and rice bowls), and Los Cilantros (sopes and tacos), as well as newcomers: Teranga (fresh juices and Senegalese stews), Kayma (Algerian halal specialties), BOUG Creole Deli (New Orleans–style fish po’ boys and crab rolls), and Mi Morena (tacos de guisados aka the stewy or saucy kind of tacos). An eighth space will be reserved for a rotating pop-up food business.
The project, which includes about $1.5 million in support from the city, is winding its way through the permitting process. La Cocina has negotiated a six-year lease on the location, which is slated for an affordable housing development that will see the demolition of the building down the track. Landa sees the project as a win-win: while the work of raising money for the $38 million affordable housing complex takes years to secure, a blighted space will be put to good use. “It’s not going to be fancy. There will be chain-link fencing between the vendors,” she says. “We are doing this at absolute bare-minimum cost.”
The short-term goal, says La Cocina Municipal Marketplace director Linda Esposito, is that the marketplace is such a neighborhood hit and financial success that it’s a no-brainer for the developers to include a ground-level market hall in the permanent redesign. The organization has raised almost $5 million for the build-out for this interim project. The goal is for it to become economically self-sufficient during its six-year stint.
La Cocina calls it the first all-female-led food court in the country. And Esposito says the model could be emulated in other underserved communities around the Bay Area and beyond.
If this business incubator has its way—and it has an impressive track record of handling hurdles and hiccups on the path to achieving its goals—that’s good news for the next generation of hungry diners.
It’s also good news for the next wave of women immigrants and refugees to the city’s shores who are eager to leave their mark and make a living sharing the unique tastes of their cultures.
“We talk a lot about the affordability crisis and what we can do about it, where we can create partnerships—in this case with the city—and opportunity for our clients so they can continue to serve San Francisco residents and be able to stay here in the Bay Area themselves,” says Landa. “The Municipal Marketplace is a response to that desire. The restaurants that are working right now in San Francisco are high end, because rents are really high. That means the food is expensive and you’re serving only a particular kind of clientele,” she says.
“For a city to truly be vibrant, you have to have all different kinds of dining options for different kinds of people. Not everybody wants a fancy sit-down experience. I think people are hungry for the type of options the marketplace will offer—from longtime Tenderloin residents, including young families, to federal building workers and tech company employees. It’s getting harder and harder to find.”
By Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa.
La Cocina’s first cookbook includes profiles and recipes from 43 successful La Cocina entrepreneurs with photographs by award-winning photographer Eric Wolfinger.
Published by Chronicle Books, June 2019.
Feature Photo from top left: Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco, Maria del Carmen Flores of Estrellita’s Snacks, Guisell Harith Osorio of Sabores del Sur, Dionne Knox of Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, Kelly Zubal of Inticing Creations, Isabel Caudillo of El Buen Comer. Second row: Maria Castillo of Botanas Felicitas, Dilsa Lugo of Los Cilantros, Koji Kanematsu of Onigilly (pictured with wife Aki Kanematsu), Elvia Buendia of La Luna Cupcakes, Alicia Villanueva of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, Gabriela Guerrero of Delicioso Crêperie. Third row: Monica Martinez of Don Bugito, Fernay McPherson of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, Guadalupe Guerrero of El Pípila (pictured with daughter Brenda Juárez), Binita Pradhan of Bini’s Kitchen, Mariko Grady of Aeden Fermented Foods, Heena Patel of Besharam. Fourth row: Charles Farrier of Crumble & Whisk Pâtisserie, Stephanie Fields of Sugarfoot, Shani Jones of Peaches Patties, Nite Yun of Nyum Bai, Reem Assil of Reem’s California, Tina Stevens of A Girl Named Pinky. Fifth row: Nafy Flatley of Teranga, Guadalupe Moreno of Mi Morena, Lamees Dahbour of Mama Lamees, Mehdi Parnia and Aisan Hoss of Oyna Natural Foods, Rosie Ortiz of Mission Boricua, Hang Truong of Noodle Girl. Photos: Eric Wolfinger.