Almost two years into the pandemic, it’s hard to see a path toward promise. We’ve been reminded of our fragile existence, seen our world’s broken systems magnified, and paddled against seemingly endless waves of loss and despair.
But promise is here. Within the microcosm of the Bay Area’s food scene, the pandemic has also shown us the power of La Cocina's community — the entrepreneurs who adapted and redirected their energies to create a plausible future, our partners who came through with greater investment and support, our staff who dug deep to uncover every viable opportunity and invented some new ones along the way. And as we bid farewell to Caleb Zigas, our visionary leader of the last decade, we welcome an exciting and brilliant new executive director, Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez.
This is the story of the promise we've created together in the face of uncertainty and the promise we choose to imagine and bring to life in the years to come.
On the corner of Golden Gate and Hyde, there is a 7,000 square-foot food hall,
La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace, which opened its doors in the midst of a pandemic. The project was the result of more than five years of strategic thinking coupled with deep community engagement and funded by institutions and donors just like you. You made this project possible, as you have made every project possible, and as we all hope that you will continue to do in order to push what’s possible into the future.
After 16 very happy years at La Cocina, this will be my last letter to you. I write it sitting at a window seat facing a Golden Gate Avenue parklet and listening to the sounds of the seven small businesses in this light-filled space work their way through lunch service, through food insecurity catering, and towards their goals of economic freedom. Knowing this market and these businesses will continue to grow and thrive in my absence gives me great hope for our city and for all of us. And it’s an important reminder that La Cocina’s various successes have always been built not on a particular leadership or director, but on exactly what you find every day in this marketplace—the innovation, ingenuity, talent, persistence and vision of the entrepreneurs that inspire this work.
Meanwhile, at 2948 Folsom, another 30 businesses continue to share space, meet with staff, and pursue access-to-market opportunities to launch them towards their various business dreams, and to join the nearly 60 graduates and alumni of La Cocina, or perhaps to become one of the 30+ brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Bay Area. This kitchen—loud, crowded, multi-generational, multicultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial and absolutely filled with delicious smells for almost two decades—has been a home for me, a constant in an otherwise tumultuous world. Entrepreneurs and staff have come and gone through the door, just as I will, and no number of changes have ever dimmed the warmth of that very special space.
La Cocina is already in good and steady hands. When I first announced my transition in February of 2020, we were fully focused on incubation, buried in corporate catering, and dreaming of opening this marketplace. The pandemic forced an immediate reconsideration of our priorities, and the organization adapted beyond any expectation. Each and every one of those initiatives was created, led and executed by staff who are the future of this organization and have always been the engine of this work.
As they look towards a hopefully brighter future, and as they do so with a new executive director in place, they face a landscape full of uncertainty. Downtown commercial districts are an open question in an undefined hybrid return to work. The weight of income inequality tethers all of us to a system of inequity. Women workers and small business owners have borne the brunt of childcare responsibilities while our school systems remain unsteady ships for our children. Technology continues to attempt to disrupt our already-crippled food systems with convenience too often taking primacy over people. What will become of our cities? What will become of our restaurants?
Right now, from this window seat, it’s possible to see at least one set of possibilities: Your support for La Cocina during my time here has changed the landscape of food in our region and the index of opportunity for the community of working-class women who make that food possible.
Just a couple of months ago, this marketplace was named one of “25 Best Restaurants” by the Chronicle — a feat which five years ago would have been unthinkable — all while a La Cocina graduate was being honored in New York as Bon Appetit’s “Head of the Table.” Your support for this marketplace has changed the conditions on a central and essential corner in the heart of San Francisco, offering a vision of what a city might look like with intentional investment into working-class spaces.
Those visions require thoughtfully lowering the barriers to entry so that the power and talent of La Cocina entrepreneurs can shine as brightly as they deserve. La Cocina and the entrepreneurs must be given the latitude, longitude, confidence, and capital to take risks. Instead of disruption, we must remain focused on solidarity; eaters are workers and workers are residents, and we are all connected through the decisions we make every time we sit for a meal. Ultimately, each and every one of us gets to make a choice about the kind of a region we want this one to be. La Cocina has always been a model for what is possible. Now is not the time to stop dreaming bigger dreams than any of us were ever permitted before. Those big dreams can turn into marketplaces, street food festivals, storytelling, restaurants, food trucks, food carts, and economic freedom. We should all have the privilege to be so free.
A week before our mandated shelter-in-place on March 16, 2020, Caleb reached out to me to talk about putting things in place to support the entrepreneurs, anticipating what might happen as the pandemic began. Before I was even thinking about what this all meant for me and other businesses, La Cocina was thinking about what we would all need. Almost immediately, our catering disappeared, restaurants had little-to-no customers, and still we needed to live.
La Cocina held our first COVID town hall meeting on March 17. At that time, not only did La Cocina share ideas for an Emergency Relief Fund (eventually raising $912K for La Cocina entrepreneurs), but they also checked in on us mentally. They instantly went to work on helping the community. They developed a weekly food box and ramped up gift box sales that included multiple businesses with more than $1.5M going directly to the entrepreneurs. They waived rent in the kitchen and forgave debt for entrepreneurs, totaling over $700K. They paired graduates with lawyers to help with rent amendment agreements, they were up to date and shared all funding opportunities available and they continued to check in with all of us personally. They also offered one-on-one help with anyone in need of assistance applying for financial assistance, including successful applications for PPP and RRA that resulted in more than $6M to entrepreneurs. It meant the world.
Caleb's leadership has been amazing to this organization. I started the incubator program in 2011, and over the last 10 years, the growth of the organization has been huge. In 2011, the very first La Cocina born restaurant was opened and now there are 30+ La Cocina-born brick-and-mortar spaces. His passion and drive has allowed the entrepreneurs to access many opportunities — from catering to restaurant spaces to sharing our stories. I personally didn’t realize our powerful stories. Caleb helped me to understand the importance of sharing it and how people wanted to know.
With the growth of La Cocina, I am looking forward to the future and the impact the organization will continue to make in the food industry. Not only will
La Cocina continue to impact the food world, they will also impact the lives of the entrepreneurs and anyone who has the opportunity to work with such an amazing organization.
“La Cocina represents nothing less than the United States at its finest: Intersectional. Female-driven. Multicultural. Entrepreneurial. Multiplatform. Centered around food, resistance, stories, and education. If more people across the country replicated this model, there’d be no need for a revolution because we’d be living in it.”