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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Mile in Her Clogs: Behind the Scenes at La Cocina

Posted By on Wed, Apr 2, 2014 at 11:00 AM

At 9 a.m., six members of La Cocina's staff gather around a rectangular table in a nondescript apartment-come-office on Folsom Street. Over coffee and tortas from La Gorda Taqueria, they begin their first meeting of the day. As they pick at the salty pork and avocado sandwiches and a welcomed wave of caffeine washes over them, the languid easiness of the morning transforms into a space of heightened energy. The creativity, the drive, and the passion permeating this space become palpable as ideas and suggestions ping-pong across the room.

In the simplest of terms, La Cocina is an incubator that supports women-run food businesses, but in the fervent work that goes into every plan, every product, and every long-held dream, it has become so much more than that. The roots of La Cocina took hold in the '90s when a group of female-focused nonprofit organizations found that access to affordable commercial kitchen space barred many women from formalizing their businesses. These women had the culinary vision, an anonymous donor had the space, and in 2005, La Cocina was born.

In the nine years since, through constant refining, retuning, and rethinking, the community kitchen transformed into a commercial one, and an intensive business-development curriculum was implemented. While the majority of the faces behind La Cocina have changed, the passion, steadfast purpose, and unwavering belief that all women, regardless of ethnicity or financial situation, should have the ability to break into the city's culinary world, remains ever present.

In a city that requires $750,000 to start a restaurant, La Cocina, through a combination of earned revenue streams (including catering, food festivals, and sales from their kiosk Ferry Building kiosk) and donations, reduces this amount to roughly $5,000 for its participants to pay "There is so much incredible food that exists in our community that never sees the light of day due to lack of resources," says Angela McKee, the former sales strategy manager who has since moved on from the company to a position in the S.F. school system. While La Cocina is not limited to female participants, its inarguable focus is indeed women." The culinary world is a white, male-dominated space, and even just getting your foot in the kitchen as a woman is hard," says McKee. "We just wanted to provide a platform and a space for those women."

The meeting adjourns at 10 a.m., and the members disband to attend to their days. After quickly loading her trunk McKee hops in her car and heads to the Ferry Building to stop at La Cocina's kiosk, a retail space dedicated solely to the products of the program's entrepreneurs. McKee makes this trip three times a week, checking on her staff, delivering supplies and an encouraging word, and assessing the sales and product inventory. The kiosk has proven an invaluable tool for women like Claire Keane of Claire's Squares, Christine Doerr of Neococoa, and Antoinette Sanchez of Endless Summer Sweets. The kiosk gives these women a platform for their products and a life to their vision -- exposure to the market, to consumers, and to future opportunities.

  • Alexis Katsilometes

But this road from concept to kiosk is a long and challenging one. Every four months, potential entrepreneurs can apply for the program, a process that begins with an orientation, or what McKee describes as the "come to Jesus moment." Generally, about 100 attend, hopeful and anxious to learn about a future they hope lies ahead. "We tell them this is what it means to run a food business," says McKee. "You will not have a life anymore, and it's going to cost you money. You're going all in ... it's a lot of hard work and a lot of risk, a lot of gain and loss."

Those not daunted by the program's promised difficulty are asked to submit a business plan; generally only 12-15 do. The plans are reviewed for feasibility and concepts that don't clash with others already in the program, as well as whether the applicant has an entrepreneurial spirit, an understanding that starting a food business is incredibly hard, and qualifies as low-to-very-low-income by the US Dept. of Housing guidelines. Six are selected to interview and provide the board with the paramount part of a tasting of their food, inarguably the most important (and satisfying) part of the process."We want great chefs," says McKee, "people who are passionate about what they do and have taken time to test their products." From the 100 that initially walked through the doors at orientation, between one and four are accepted.

For the 15 women who have graduated from the program, and the 41 currently working though it, the first six months are an intensive introduction to business operations. Deemed "pre-incubation," it is designed to teach the entrepreneurs about product development, finance, and marketing. With the help of generous volunteers, the women learn everything from how to file permits and perform basic accounting to how to package their products and market their businesses. Much of the growth and exposure to the business world comes from their time spent in the La Cocina commercial kitchen. They rent the space for a subsidized fee, and learn how to develop their recipes, perfect their products, and reduce cost.

They're not alone, of course -- they have backing from senior program manager Geetika Agrawal and program manager Daniella Sawaya, who act as teachers, enforcers, and mother figures. At times, however, amid the support and care, are moments of conflict . "We tend to get really invested in the businesses and sometimes we push a little harder than they're comfortable with at the moment," says Sawaya. "Sometimes it's hard to take a step back and realize that we're not running the business together. They're running the business and we're here to support."

Agrawal echoes this sentiment: "Sometimes they make a decision that is different than what I think they should make and sometimes that's great and sometimes it's like 'oh god.' Figuring out how to support them through that process and letting that happen is hard."

But support them they do; through progress and victories, through setbacks and failures; through the six-month pre-incubation period and into the formal launch of their businesses. Agrawal and Sawaya continue to meet with the women each month, discussing business strategies and goals, expounding upon the work of the previous months. The women continue to use the commercial kitchen, refine their recipes, and develop their products until they are ready to graduate. There is no fixed time period for this; McKee says that packaged food business owners generally take two to three years, two to seven for prepared food. Oftentimes, this is the result of the women simply outgrowing the La Cocina kitchen space, an undeniable marker of success.

Through every step of the journey, Sawaya, Agrawal, McKee, and the rest of the La Cocina team provide the women with exponential guidance; equally profound, however, are lessons the women have learned from one another. Day in and day out, they cook in the same kitchen, working on independent tasks while standing, literally and figuratively, at each other's sides. They have influenced each other's recipes and cooking methods. Alicia from Alicia's Tamales los Mayas learned how to make her masa more efficiently from Maria del Carmen, who was making her el Salvadorian tamales next to her at the time.

"That's what you get when you have a community of women," McKee says. "Especially when you're working with women who have lived a large part of their lives with a very limited amount of resources; everything is valuable...time, resources, preparation. These women are smart, and they're incredible. The biggest thing La Cocina has," she pauses for a moment as a smile grows across her face, "is the story that we can tell."

Victoria Castañon, en employee of Alicia's Tamales los Mayas - ALEXIS KATSILOMETES
  • Alexis Katsilometes
  • Victoria Castañon, en employee of Alicia's Tamales los Mayas

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Alexis Katsilometes


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