La Cocina Helps Low-Income Food Entrepreneurs Succeed

The nonprofit provides commercial kitchen space and business training for women culinary operators in San Francisco’s Mission District.


Cover photo courtesy of Eric Wolfinger

For those of you who have lived in a major city—have you ever walked by a corner stand selling amazing street food and wondered how they got there?

La Cocina is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps small businesses like these thrive, among other low-income and marginalized proprietors of the food industry. Spanish for “the kitchen,” the project started in 2005 in San Francisco’s Mission District, an ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood heavy with income inequality. “If you’ve ever walked around the Mission, particularly around a BART station, you might have noticed that there is a thriving and beautiful informal economy that takes place,” explains Emiliana Puyana, program manager at La Cocina. “Those businesses are and have historically been run by working-class immigrants.” Emiliana is a chef by trade, who was also a member of the program herself (she had a pickling business) before joining the team on the other side of the table.

Historically, while plenty of nonprofits have served this area over the years, many found that the participants of their economic sustainability programs, primarily working-class WOC and immigrants, had not completed their projects. When asked why they hadn’t, they would reply it was simply because they didn’t have access to a commercial kitchen space—this is how La Cocina came to be.

La Cocina is a community kitchen for low-income food entrepreneurs. Photo by Eric Wolfinger.

The group opened with an affordable community kitchen, which eventually became the core component of their program. It is located on Folsom Street in the city, a 2,200-square-feet space that can accommodate up to eight businesses at a time. It is also equipped with prep stations, cookware, and cold/frozen/dry storage. Rates start at a mere $30/hour, plus $90/month for storage space. Business owners can basically build from the ground up and operate from this kitchen alone.

Later on, La Cocina established a technical training curriculum that advises entrepreneurs about business development, which can cover many aspects like marketing, strategy, finance, and operations. “It’s things like having a thought partner to talk to about the direction of where you want to take your business,” explains Emiliana, “… gaining access to a vast network of volunteers that can support you with anything from marketing strategies, food photography, recipe development, entity formation, sales strategies, accounting, bookkeeping, and more.” In order to qualify for the program, you must demonstrate a low income, have a business plan (if you don’t, La Cocina recommends one of their partner organizations, Renaissance Center for Entrepreneurship and Centro Community Partners and MEDA, to create one), a stand-out delicious product, and a willingness to work with the community. La Cocina has worked with over 100 entrepreneurs in its time, with 32 brick-and-mortar locations in the Bay Area owned by graduates of the incubator program—several of whom have won awards from Bon Áppetit, Food & Wine, and James Beard nominations.

Last year, La Cocina created a cookbook of recipes by the members of their incubator program. Photo by Eric Ng.

Although COVID-19 has created many setbacks for the culinary world, La Cocina has remained committed to keeping their program members afloat, as well as worked to stay strong and relevant as a nonprofit business during this time. Their grassroots work has incorporated a series of initiatives like advocating rent abatement with lease holders, providing a connection to pro bono legal services, and creating ties to food insecurity programs in the area. Business initiatives by La Cocina include a marketplace women-led food hall by their members, a cookbook, and virtual events. Their popular storytelling event “Voices From the Kitchen” launches online on YouTube on October 29, in which viewers can munch on food boxes prepared by La Cocina entrepreneurs while watching two short films about food and current events.

La Cocina partnered with food insecurity programs to provide community boxes for those in need during COVID-19. Photo by La Cocina.

There are many ways you can support La Cocina whether or not you’re based in the Bay Area. You can become a member, donate to the emergency relief fund, support the food hall, and make a one-time donation here. In a time where everyone in the F&B industry needs to come together, La Cocina makes a serious impact on passionate people driven by food. “My hope is that in doing this work I have a hand to play in building a fairer industry,” says Emiliana. “That about sums it up for me. … When I get to see the women that come through the doors of La Cocina make their dreams a reality as a result of extreme hard work and dedication … I feel so inspired, recharged, ready to go again, and the amazing thing is that in the process, our city just gets more and more delicious.”

About Katrina Yentch 221 Articles
Katrina Yentch (she/her) is a freelance writer and Barista Magazine's Online Editor. When she's not writing, you can find her napping, cooking, and drinking whatever's on drip.