The pandemic has shed a brighter light on a broken system that has failed to protect the most vulnerable — the result of a systemically created racial wealth gap reflected in and perpetuated by high barriers to entry into the formal food industry for low-income BIPOC and immigrant women. For 16 years, La Cocina has combated this wealth gap, lowering these barriers to business ownership that generate assets and create wealth in low-income communities. We could never have imagined the devastation the pandemic could cause.
By March 31, 2020, La Cocina-born businesses experienced an average 70% loss in sales. New businesses to long-time graduates were looking to us for answers and support. We shifted our strategic focus to an intentional and direct response to the threats that COVID-19 presented to the businesses and our organization. Our incubator services grew to meet the needs of our community — from delivering technical assistance to 41 program participants to supporting the survival of 72 active businesses, including graduates.
The pandemic has worsened the Bay Area's income inequality. While focus is now on centering BIPOC success, there are still few that can actually effectively deliver resources to the communities, cultivate leaders, and ensure that this energy is directed and used to lead us to the future we want — like we do at La Cocina.
At a time when 1 of 7 small businesses has closed, La Cocina has not only kept a community of 72 businesses alive, but enabled some entrepreneurs to generate more sales than pre-pandemic. Our incubator model, community, and COVID-19 response has allowed businesses to survive and innovate at a critical time — something many low-income BIPOC entrepreneurs without focused support were not able to access.
We’ve proven the success of new programs created to address the impacts of the pandemic. The majority of our entrepreneurs received more relief (regardless of immigration status) from our own Emergency Relief Fund than from local or federal governments. The disbursements proved to be critical in paying their personal expenses, allowing them to turn toward their businesses, retain more employees, and strategize new market adaptations.
Our rent abatement work — waiving our own kitchen fees and pairing 25 attorneys with 24 entrepreneurs to renegotiate 30 leases — enabled businesses to weather the public health crisis. These agreements were hard fought — many taking 6-8 months, but were key in advocating for a community critical to creating vibrant spaces and economic value in properties.
We supported the navigation of employee assistance and EDD, PPP, CARES, RRA, and grants. We created new sales channels with a food box program, expanded our gift box program, and launched food security partnerships that provided work for entrepreneurs while feeding frontline workers and vulnerable populations. We conducted weekly town halls, becoming the most trusted source of information that our community relied on to navigate this crisis.
Based on the need to expand technical assistance to graduates, we designed a new model called Learning Circles that met twice a month; were led by staff, entrepreneurs, and industry experts; and offered in English and Spanish. We've seen entrepreneurs across different stages of incubation educate each other, proving that BIPOC women are leaders.
In April 2021, we launched our biggest project to date: the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, home to seven businesses. In collaboration with dozens of community partners, we aim to transform a blighted corner through a unique public amenity that prioritizes the needs of the Tenderloin’s vibrant working-class community. La Cocina will activate its ecosystem of stakeholders to ensure successful pathways to economic freedom for our participants and the community, creating a blueprint for others to follow.
La Cocina's impact goes beyond the entrepreneurs themselves and the communities from which they hire; we aim for our organization and the entrepreneurs to serve as models across the world.