It’s been awhile since we last sat in a classroom, but as soon as we heard the University of the Pacific was holding free seminars on Saturdays that focused on all things food related we were intrigued. When we found out that they’d be hosting a session with La Cocina‘s communications and development coordinator, Jessica Mataka, and Alicia Villanueva, who is the head chef and owner of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, we decided we had to check it out.
“People want to know where their food comes from and who is making it.” ~Jessica Mataka of La Cocina
If you aren’t familiar with La Cocina, it’s a pretty cool non profit that is dedicated to cultivating budding food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. We first stumbled upon La Cocina in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. We were mesmerized by the creative culinary dishes they had on display at La Cocina’s little stall. Among the many dishes that look to pretty to eat are stunning gelatin desserts from a food startup called Sweets Collection that look like elegant paperweights. La Cocina’s Ferry Building stall was unlike anything we had seen before, so off we went to class to learn a bit more about this San Francisco based incubator kitchen and one of the successful local entrepreneurs it supports.
There were about 20 people in our session yesterday. It started at 3pm and ran until about 4:30pm. Mataka kicked things off by outlining La Cocina’s mission and vision before discussing how the organization goes about helping women, immigrants, low income food entrepreneurs and people of color pursue their dreams of becoming successful business owners. The idea for La Cocina first emerged in the mid ’90s in San Francisco’s Mission District and it officially launched in 2005, with the support of community organizations and generous building donations.
“I started my business just with a dream cooking under the table.” ~Alicia Villanueva, Chef and Owner of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas
One of the biggest forms of support that La Cocina offers budding business owners like Villanueva is access to affordable commercial kitchen space. (According to Mataka, a commercial kitchen in San Francisco can cost anywhere from $35 to $50 an hour.) In the span of one year and because of its access to two tables and many other La Cocina resources, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas was able to net an incredible $1 million dollars in sales.
Prior to working with La Cocina, Villanueva was producing about 1,200 tamales per month and balancing being a mom to her three children. Villanueva initially pounded the pavement going door to door in her neighborhood and selling her tamales at local body shops. Today she’s producing a whopping 40,000 tamales per month and on the cusp of brokering a deal with Whole Foods, so she can get her tamales in front of an even larger audience.
While commercial kitchen access is a huge hurdle for food entrepreneurs, it isn’t the only problem that La Cocina helps budding businesses overcome.
Pay to Play – According to Mataka, Opening a Restaurant in San Francisco Typically Costs Between $500,000 to $1,000,000
La Cocina uses a four prong process that involves:
- Training – La Cocina works with volunteers to help owners develop their businesses at low or no cost. Volunteers range from accountants and lawyers to chefs and graphic designers.
- Market Access – Getting in front of the right audience is key for any young business. La Cocina helps food startups secure spots at farmers markets, festivals, pop up spaces and other events.
- Capital – Money talks. Whether it’s securing a loan or brokering introductions to community development financial institutions, La Cocina works with entrepreneurs to connect them with funding resources.
- Savings – Crafting a nest egg and putting funds aside for the growth of their business is critical for food startups. By providing resources via volunteers and doing things like subsiding kitchen rental fees, La Cocina assists business owners by defraying expenses they might not otherwise be able to afford.
Mataka also says that La Cocina assists entrepreneurs with their business plans. Her team works with business owners to figure out what their primary goal is for their company and helps them evaluate the competitive landscape they’re facing.
“Who else is making this …and are they successful?” ~Questions Jessica Mataka and La Cocina Ask Entrepreneurs
La Cocina’s 11 employees and its volunteers also helps entrepreneurs with their permit forms. Since permit submissions are often in English, that poses another issue for immigrant entrepreneurs like Villanueva who originally hails from Mazatlán in Mexico.
“La Cocina changed my life.” ~Alicia Villanueva, Chef and Owner of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas
Today with the backing of La Cocina, Villanueva has 17 employees, but she still sticks to her grandmother’s original tamale recipe. Earlier this year you may have spotted Villanueva selling tamales at SF Beer Week, the LAUNCH Festival or Outside Lands. If you missed her at those events, you can catch Villanueva’s infectious smile at La Cocina’s upcoming SF Street Food Festival which is taking place on Sunday, October 15th.
If you’re interested in supporting La Cocina, here are a few ways you can help:
- Check out La Cocina’s kiosk in the SF Ferry Building’s Marketplace
- Swing by their Folsom Street location for an open door tour of the facilities and share your experience on social media
- Request catering for your company’s next event from La Cocina’s graduate restaurants
- Purchase La Cocina gift boxes for the foodies in your life
- Lend a hand by volunteering your connections, services or time
- Forgo a couple of fancy cocktails this week and donate to La Cocina
- Tell talented low income food entrepreneurs you know that they should apply for La Cocina’s incubator program
Polly Adema, who is the director of the Master of Arts in Food Studies program at the University of the Pacific, and her team do a fabulous job exposing students and the public to the food world through their free Saturday Seminars program. We left our event feeling full (yes, tamales from Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas were served), but also more knowledgable about the food startup scene in the Bay Area and happy that organizations like La Cocina exist to break down the barriers to entry. By inspiring confidence and pairing immigrants and women of color with mentors and support, hopefully groups like La Cocina are creating more diversity in this little valley’s food industry and also giving us access to unique dishes and flavors from around the world. If you’re interested in checking out the university’s list of upcoming speakers, you can find it here.
University of the Pacific Saturday Seminars *RSVPs Are Required for Each Session
Address: 155 5th Street (Minna Street Entrance)
San Francisco, California
Hours: Saturdays at 3pm
Phone: (415) 400-8222 Option 3
Pricing (All in USD): Saturday Seminars are Free and Open to the Public