The Mission District, a bustling east-central neighborhood of San Francisco, is home to over 47,000 people — many of whom are Hispanic — and a thriving food scene.
Female restaurateurs there are already holding their own in the city — in fact, an estimated 44 percent of food businesses in all of San Francisco are owned by women, according to 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
But the working-class immigrants living in the Mission District have also developed a more informal entrepreneurial community, comprised of mostly women who are using food carts — and in many cases, their own homes — to sell authentic Latin cuisine, baked goods and more to local fan bases. These low-cost offerings are created by truly gifted women but, sadly, have not been earning them significant profits.
But La Cocina is working to change that. The innovative commercial kitchen space and business incubator, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, helps the neighborhood’s burgeoning female food entrepreneurs formalize their ventures.
Over the past decade, La Cocina has graduated many women from its program and received significant press attention from the likes of CBS News, the Huffington Post and famed chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain. It has also enjoyed support from outfits like the Levi Strauss Foundation.
If You Can’t Take the Heat…
Despite La Cocina’s successes — and that of its clients — the organization’s programs and development manager, Leticia Landa, says several significant roadblocks still stand between the neighborhood’s raw culinary talents and their dreams of owning and operating successful businesses.
“One very real barrier for these communities is money. A lot of people think you simply buy food, you make X, you sell Y, and then there’s a profit. But there are a lot of expenses that are hard to see from the outside,” she says.
Then there are “the vagaries of the food industry itself,” including the need to navigate permits, inspections and more that are part of owning a food business in a country with particularly stringent regulations and protocols, especially compared to these women’s home countries.
Landa says the women also grapple with language barriers, as well as cultural and gender discrimination.
“We look around, and the vast majority of major food businesses are owned by men. Most renowned cooks are men. And these women can be intimidated into feeling like it’s a place where they don’t belong.”
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La Cocina works to boost their confidence by showcasing people just like them who are already making it work.
Ultimately, it takes a multi-pronged effort to help members of this community access new opportunities — members who are prepared to persevere through many challenges, that is.
“We need people who are excited about the risks and who are willing to take them on, as well as the hard work,” Landa says. “We are looking for people who have a business model or idea that’s viable and realistic in this marketplace — one that can incur the costs and risks it takes to actually reap the rewards.”
Whipping Up Excellence
La Cocina’s model and methodologies developed over time — quite a long time, in fact.
Its story actually began several years prior to its grand opening. In the late 1990s, a number of community organizations in San Francisco noticed that food entrepreneurs struggled to get their businesses off the ground in ways that business owners in other industries did not. “People would write their business plans, but then their ventures wouldn’t get launched,” Landa recalled.
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Soon, Landa says those organizations then called upon the Women’s Foundation of California to leverage additional funding resources, in hopes of developing an affordable commercial kitchen that these business owners could use. Donors were excited about the prospect, and with their help, the Foundation was able to secure a 4,000-square foot building — more than half of which is kitchen space — for La Cocina.
In its first years, the nonprofit functioned more as a kitchen space than anything else. But today, it’s a full-fledged incubator with nine staff members, a growing roster of program graduates, and a generous network of donors.
The Toasts of La Cocina
With that support system in place, La Cocina is able to help entrepreneurs like Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco, who got her start in food while working with her aunt and uncle at their restaurant in La Raza, Mexico City, before coming to the San Francisco Bay Area.
La Cocina helped Salazar take her huaraches — masa cakes filled with beans — from her California living room to catering jobs and a stand at the Alemany Farmer’s Market. But she didn’t stop there. Salazar went on to secure a brick and mortar location, which required serious negotiations with some serious suits.
In those talks, La Cocina backed her up, Landa says. “Sitting across from a real estate developer — a white, male one at that — is tough, especially if English is not your first language, and especially if you don’t have a lot of formal education in terms of processing financial documents.”
Salazar’s natural culinary abilities sealed the deal, and she opened the restaurant she dreamed of in 2012. It’s been a great success; Salazar made over $1 million in sales in her first year of business.
“I didn’t go to culinary school, and I had no idea how to run a business” in the United States, Salazar recalled on her site. “I am grateful to La Cocina and La Cocina’s volunteers for providing me with the technical assistance to bring my food to the Bay Area.”
Going forward, the crew at La Cocina hopes to bring the food incubator model to other parts of the U.S., which it believes can help “local economies remain diverse and inclusive.”
It’s a wise move, as immigrant and Hispanic women are becoming an increasingly powerful force in the world of entrepreneurship. The Center for American Progress has found that Hispanic women run one in every 10 women-owned businesses. And according to the Immigration Policy Center, female immigrants in general are starting ventures at very high rates — in fact, business ownership among that portion of the American populace is said to have increased 468 percent since 1980.
But beyond the statistical merits of helping these communities, La Cocina also wants these women to get their fair shots. Salazar is “an amazing example of what’s possible,” Landa says, “and there are so many other women like her.”