I’ve had the joy of walking from my home to our incubator kitchen at 2948 Folsom almost every day since 2013. The mornings are slow and quiet, but there is energy everywhere on Mission Street — grocers carefully placing out their wares, vendors offering fresh-cut fruit and coconut water under a sunny rainbow umbrella. In the evenings, the streets are full and alive with pupusa vendors tucked into alleyways, music pumping from tiendas selling luggage and piñatas, blankets hawking everything from shampoo to vintage jewelry boxes, and well-worn, better-loved taquerias shoulder to shoulder with high-end plant shops, coffee shops and other sundry symbols of a neighborhood in gentrified flux.
Our kitchen, like its Mission home, is a place like no other. Music pulses from the speaker, the rhythm of sheet trays raps on the counter, the hiss of the steamer gives the bass line, a melange of spices fuses the sounds together, and the warm welcome of the entrepreneurs, their employees, and my coworkers are the vocals. Every entrepreneur hustles to sell their food in new places, expand their business, grow their own leadership; and the staff, right alongside them, figuring out how to pave their road smoother so they can run faster.
For the months of shelter in place, I missed it all.
But the entrepreneurs never stopped finding ways to sell food; and so, too, our program never stopped working. Walter, our kitchen manager, was the only
La Cocina staff to go into the kitchen for those early months keeping it safe and open. Emiliana and Blake, our program managers, found ways to support each entrepreneur in keeping their business dreams growing through Zoom, through masks, through outdoor meetings (and one incredibly sandy beach meeting). The rest of the staff joined in to figure it out together and make it happen together. Between ever-changing health codes; sanitization ordering; conversations on PPP, rent abatement, EDD; and more — it became clear that this set of challenges, while different in shape, were just like those that our entrepreneurs have always faced.
Sixteen years and one pandemic later, our kitchen is full again, our businesses of 2020 still stand as we look into 2022, and our program team continues to humble me in their determination. It’s made me evermore certain of the power of our incubation approach in busting through the systemic barriers that dare to limit the potential of entrepreneurs of color.
We decode permits. We debate brand directions with the entrepreneur. We dream of new restaurants in old kitchen spaces. We support securing capital, and advocate for it when it isn’t there. We thread the needle of architects, contractors, engineers, and leases to make restaurants real. We stand in the kitchen alongside entrepreneurs as they hone their home recipes into commercially scalable products. Every step of the way, we meet these entrepreneurs where they are, and do everything in our power and capacity to support their visions. Every year at
La Cocina, our program, like our entrepreneurs’ businesses, has grown and adapted as the market changed — the mark of resiliency and an asset in these times more than ever.
In the darkest days of the pandemic, I feared for what - and who - may be left. Now I see it as our entrepreneurs perhaps always did: another opportunity to adapt and grow.
As we reopen for incubation and move away from a focus solely on business survival, I am excited to see our own adaptations flourish and grow. We launched virtual Learning Circles during the pandemic where our entrepreneurs and other food industry leaders would teach and learn from each other on topics, ranging from leasing and online retail innovations to managing employees in a pandemic to self care. We’re retooling our approach for packaged food businesses to adapt to e-commerce and find new ways to grow. Our community food boxes and food security work has expanded the entrepreneurs’ offerings into meal kits and individual lunches, opening new opportunities for growth. Like seeds that rest in the soil during winter, I am certain that there is a bounty about to flourish around the bend.
We dream now, too, with bigger teams. We’re collaborating with our Marketplace team to expand recruitment, host community gatherings, and showcase new businesses with Friday night pop-ups featuring new entrepreneurs. We’re dreaming up new training programs and sales with our growing earned income streams.
This January, my daughter and I walked through the Mission, marked by a pandemic but still alive, to get her vaccinated at a pop-up site on 24th and Mission. On our way out, I met Carlos, selling tacos canasta from a small rollaway cart to those waiting for shots, tests, or supporting them. My daughter and I ordered one, devouring it on the spot. Three repeat orders later, I asked for his name. He handed me a card. It had a QR code. “I do parties,” he said as he prepared the next customer's order.
Entrepreneurs will always rise. It is then up to us, as a society, to build roads differently, so more can thrive.
After nine years, Geetika is leaving La Cocina for, as she puts it, “rest, aimless wanders around this imperfect city I love, dumplings, drinks, and of course many, many La Cocina meals.” She has been instrumental in the architecture and facilitation of our innovative and award-winning incubator program. Our organization and staff are truly grateful for her willingness to share her brilliance, dedication, and heart with our community.
Our work, experiences, agility and connections with the food industry built over 16 years enables us to stay ahead of the market, adapt our skills, build partnerships, and innovate. It’s the same fight, but a new playing field with new opportunities.
At La Cocina, we’ve always known that our community of entrepreneurs are deeply resilient. They come to us having survived things that are part of the day to day of being a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, financially insecure, undocumented, and the exact type of person that our economic structures deny, oppress, and undernourish. Our program has always been rooted in the deep knowledge of their strength, and the unwavering commitment to remove barriers in front of them. Their success before the pandemic — and their ability to survive it — is proof of what can happen if we structure our society to invest in everyone.
Innovation necessitates failure, learning quickly, making mistakes. Tech thrives today (however you may feel about it) because billions of dollars are invested in allowing startups to make mistakes, hire teams, and find the businesses. It is not anything inherent: it’s about investment. At La Cocina, we invest by doing.
We have always delivered a robust curriculum and workshop series. During the pandemic we transformed the model, moving 100% online, adopting a format that centered our entrepreneurs and other industry leaders. We asked our community what they wanted to learn, studied trends, and built a series of Learning Circles.
We’re using this moment to move away from supremacy structures where there is one expert to co-learning models where we learn and grow together, nourishing an interdependent ecosystem.
In the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood stands the nation’s first women-led food hall, the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace – our biggest project to date. Opened in April 2021, the Marketplace is home to seven talented, working-class women chefs and their businesses. You can find world-class handmade corn tortillas, lobster po’ boys, and Senegalese peanut stew — a place where anyone, any day, can find a plate of incredible food for $5, or use EBT for a nourishing meal. You will find a space built with passionate intention to prove that it’s possible to build new places in our cities that prioritize the needs of working-class residents while supporting equity and the economic freedom of working-class chefs.
Inside, you will feel what it means to build a community where everyone is welcome. This is not yesterday’s restaurant, or tomorrow’s food hall. Through the collective power and talent of seven women-of-color-owned businesses and a transgender-owned coffee collaborative, this is a living demonstration of what today’s food industry can be when cities and private partners respect the community and invest in equitable opportunity and conscious placemaking.
Much like La Cocina’s commercial kitchen, the Municipal Marketplace offers an opportunity for business owners to share the cost of maintenance and to reduce the individual burden felt by cut-throat rent, electricity bills, dishwasher salaries, general maintenance and other operating costs, that often cut into already thin margins.
The Marketplace features two La Cocina graduates with restaurants as well as five program participants that have launched their first brick-and-mortar space:
The Municipal Marketplace serves the backbone of the city. The very density of the Tenderloin — the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city — alone speaks for the need for more job opportunities, community spaces, and affordable food options. This neighborhood has the highest population density in the city, the highest density of children, and one of the highest poverty levels. Its population is the economic driver of our city, yet their needs have been ignored. Decades of political divestment, biased development policies, institutionalized racism and sexism, and a decline in social services has left an otherwise vibrant neighborhood rife with drugs, crime, addiction and little economic opportunity.
With community collaboration and resources, and city, federal and philanthropic support, La Cocina has renovated a dilapidated post office into a community-centered space. The Marketplace provides jobs for Tenderloin residents and affordable, delicious, and culturally diverse meals to residents who face a combined lack of access to fresh produce and live in SROs without cooking equipment.
Working with dozens of neighborhood grassroots organizers, the Marketplace creates an inclusive, equitable, and welcoming space for families, tenants and workers through deliberate community programming. The space is home to Fluid, a trans-owned-and-operated coffee cooperative (looking to eventually open its own brick-and-mortar cafe and event space in the Tenderloin), as well as a community library, free access to wifi and computers, and where thousands of meals are prepared for food security programs benefiting vulnerable neighbors.
The Marketplace is led by visionary entrepreneur Jay Foster. Chef Foster’s career has focused on representing soul food and Southern food in San Francisco, running his iconic restaurant Farmerbrown in the Tenderloin for 15 years as well as Little Skillet and Isla Vida Caribbean. He works alongside Director Aniela Valtierra who carefully steers Marketplace operations through the ever-changing pandemic tides, and Naomi Maisel, manager of community partnerships and food justice advocacy, who fosters relationships with Tenderloin organizations and residents and manages community programming out of the space.
If you visited the Marketplace in the last few months, you might have seen or joined sign making for a community march advocating for a safer Tenderloin, a Diwali celebration with community leaders, a self-care workshop for small business owners, a field trip for kindergarteners learning about what makes a city, a special Phoenix Day celebration with drag performances, and a festive holiday market with Tenderloin businesses selling handmade gifts alongside La Cocina entrepreneurs serving tasty bites.
Now imagine a Marketplace in every major city in the U.S.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, we have an opportunity to lift up all of our communities and give everyone an opportunity to be a part of this City’s bright future. This innovative project is a perfect example of how we can do that. I’m so excited for the Marketplace and everything it represents.”
Ofelia Barajas spent 16 years selling tamales as a street vendor in the Mission District where she raised her family. Her daughter Reyna Maldonado watched her mother’s business grow, but also witnessed the challenges of running an informal operation.
With encouragement, they joined La Cocina's incubator program. And with lots of hard work (Reyna was also a full-time college student at the time), they grew their business from a street food stand to a restaurant in Oakland called La Guerrera’s Kitchen. La Guerrera is Spanish for “The Warrior.” The mother-daughter duo describes the Guerrero region of Mexico, their country of origin, as a "truly magical place from the coastline to lush mountains with a vibrant food culture to match." Their delicious tamales, pozole, and barbacoa come from traditional family recipes.
Having just signed a new 15-year lease at Swan’s Market in Oakland, Ofelia and Reyna are now faced with a fresh, but welcome, challenge. With the security that comes with a longer lease, they are able to, for the first time, plan for the long term. Reyna wants to go back to her family’s roots and incorporate selling tamales from a street cart as part of their business model. Having seen neighbors move out from her community, Ofelia hopes to create safe spaces for her community to enjoy food and laughter, so the mother-daughter duo is considering opening a smaller, more intimate second location in the Mission, a neighborhood close to their hearts.
“My mom’s food needs to be celebrated and honored. Her work and her contribution to the community deserves to be recognized. Being part of La Cocina taught me that there are so many entrepreneurs who bring their traditions here, and we deserve a place where we can sell our food and make a living from it.”