Friday, January 08, 2010

Cultivating Food Entrepreneurs: Interview with Patricia Loya of La Cocina

"Fast forward four years later, she's the owner of her own company. Business is booming. She's growing her business. . . . we can't fast forward to three generations from now, but the trajectory of her family, I guarantee you, has been changed forever."
Early last month I chatted with Executive Director, Patricia Loya, about La Cocina, a San Francisco incubator kitchen for women. The mission of La Cocina is to cultivate food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market opportunities. They focus primarily on women from culturally diverse and immigrant communities.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, which you can also listen to on the Big Vision Podcast site, or through the iTunes Music Store. Our conversation began with Patricia explaining the need that La Cocina fills.

Patricia Loya: La Cocina fills a need that no other organization in the Bay Area fills, and that is that we provide intensive one-on-one technical assistance, access to markets, and a full state-of-the-art commercial kitchen facility to people who otherwise would not have access to those resources: mainly women, low-income immigrants, and other people like that in our community.

Specifically, you might see in the Mission District a low-income immigrant woman who is selling tamales that she made out of her home. She's doing this because her family doesn't have enough income and she's patching her family's income in the best way she can. By doing it that way, her business is not going to grow, but she's at least making ends meet.

If a person like that has the dream and the vision to start their own food business, a legitimate food business, and they want to do the hard work that it takes to get that done, we at La Cocina can help them. A person like that would apply to our program, and we'd see if they meet our basic requirements. Then we'd also see if they have what it takes to put in the hard work of starting a business.

If you fast forward four years later, that same woman now has a legitimate business that's been formalized. It has a business plan. She has her licenses. She is no longer cooking out of her home (it's illegal to cook out of your home and sell the food, though people do it). She's cooking out of a certified commercial kitchen facility. What does this mean for her business?

She now can sell to a Citibank luncheon. She can advertise her services for weddings. She can start saving up income to one day have her own restaurant. And in the course of that time she's gained enough skills to be able to do that, and that's what we're here for.

Are they two separate programs, the program that women apply to, and then the facility? Can people use the facility if they're not in the program, or are they intertwined?

Well, the facility is a super great resource in the community. The Mission District in San Francisco has a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen that's an envy. Whether you're a low-income immigrant person, or a French-trained chef, this is a fantastic kitchen to be in. We do rent some kitchen space to commercial users who are not part of our program, and we don't just accept and open the kitchen up to any commercial users. We are creating a space here that is supportive, and that helps a particular type of person advance, so we screen commercial tenants, but we do have some commercial users of the kitchen who are not part of the program.

You talked about it a little bit, but what are the skills that the women who go through the program learn?

Over the course of four years, they receive one-on-one technical assistance, workshops, and all type of training, mainly in five areas: sales, finances, operations, product development, and marketing. For instance, if we dive into the area of marketing, a woman may not have even thought of who her market is. What is her niche? What kind of logo does she want to have? Is she spunky and playful, or is she serious and soul food?

It just depends, and by the time a woman graduates from La Cocina, they're clear about what their market is and how to reach that market. They have a brand. They have a logo. They have a website, and it's all with a strategy behind it. That's just in one area.

In terms of product development, the people who come here are typically great cooks and great chefs, but it's one thing to cook for 40 people, and it's another thing to have a product that is available to 2,000 people.

On our staff we have a Culinary Director, and that person works one-on-one with each participant. Recipes sometimes need to be changed. It's not about multiplying it by 40!

She may be buying her onions in the little store down the street, and then her meat three blocks farther away. She may have a good relationship with the little market, but the prices are super high.

We just bring to their attention where they could source their products. It's always their choice, but oftentimes the women are really shocked that they can buy organic local products for the same price, or less than what they're spending on products that aren't organic. Those are some of the different things you get when you have a Culinary Director on staff.

What's one of your favorite La Cocina success stories?

Oh, gosh, there's so many. There's a story of a particular woman, and I won't say her name, but she's very typical, say, of an immigrant Latina woman. She has a husband. She has a family. It's a big step for her to even consider the undertaking of a business. And this particular woman had a husband who was not particularly supportive, just thought, "Terrible idea. You're going to be away from the home. What are you doing?"

The staff at La Cocina is trained to be able to not just provide her with the technical support, but to help her get over all the barriers in life. One, in this instance, might have been his initial scorn. Fast forward four years later, she's the owner of her own company. Business is booming. She's growing her business. Her husband is part of the business. He works for her. He's supportive.

She didn't actually make him a co-owner in this particular case, but can you imagine what's happening in that household? How do you quantify that? What happened to her self-esteem? How did he also grow in the process? This is a story that I think is a miracle, you know, for her family. And we can't fast forward to three generations from now, but the trajectory of her family, I guarantee you, has been changed forever.

What are some of the challenges that La Cocina faces in meeting its mission and doing its programs?

La Cocina is at the point where everything is still a first for us. We started five years ago, and as you've heard, women are typically in the program anywhere from two to five years. We just barely got our 501(c)(3) status. This is a year of firsts in terms of everything about our financial structures. Like all nonprofits, we're consistently going for the funding, and the economy has an impact on that. We're successful, but we have a watchful eye on what's happening nationally, and with the philanthropic world. Specifically, one thing that we notice is a barrier is that as successful as the women are, say in year four, a barrier to them graduating from La Cocina is do they really have enough capital in the San Francisco marketplace to open up a San Francisco restaurant?

Even if they are renting the space, they are typically asked to have 12 months worth of rent liquid in assets, and it's hard. A lot of them don't have that. If they even thought about buying a space, we're talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We're noticing that as a challenge right now, and it's a challenge at a time in which the economy has taken the turn we all know it's taken. Loans are harder to come by. What do we do in a case like this?

We're bringing together partners from our board, the community, the banking world, and the investment world, and piecing together, or attempting to piece together, solutions for specific people in our program, so that they can build that capital, or that credit, or that loan that they need to really launch a full-fledged business in the city.

Wow! That's a huge challenge I never even thought of. I mean, it's bad enough when you're renting yourself, but for a whole year, yeesh, especially when you're starting.

Exactly. Imagine being an immigrant woman who lives south of the Tenderloin, very low rent, and the entire family lives in a one-bedroom place. You're not splurging or spending tons, but over the past four years you've accumulated quite a few tens of thousands of dollars, and then sitting in front of a real estate agent and being told, "Not even close. You don't have enough. " It's hard. That's why we're trying to be creative about the solution. The thing that La Cocina does well is it's self-reflective. The staff here has always been self-reflective, and barriers don't stop us. We're going to figure out this puzzle. We just haven't figured it out yet.

What's the path that brought you to this work? You just started at La Cocina this year, and you did many interesting things before. What brought you here?

I have a passion for working with low-income communities. I have a passion for working with women, and I have a passion for working with people who are doing what it takes to advance themselves and their families. Specifically, in my family if I look back at what brought us to where we are today, it was really a powerful stand that my great-grandmother took. She was born in 1902. She was orphaned at a young age, and at some point she decided that the only way she could make a living for herself was cooking. She had a third-grade education, but was extremely wise. She cooked for families. She cooked for restaurants. She at one point cooked for the US military. She got the skill of cooking great food, for lots of people.

For whatever reason, this Mexican-American woman decided, "I'm going to start my own restaurant." She started La Casita Cafe. When she did that, it catapulted my family out of poverty forever. Every one of my aunts and uncles, myself included, my sisters, and my grandfather, all worked for La Casita.

It was located right across from NAU, and because of that, some of my mother's siblings got to go to college. If it wasn't located right across the street from NAU, it's anybody's guess. But also, if they didn't have that sort of income and that sort of family stability, would that have even been an option?

I have uncles to this day make their living as chefs, and I have an aunt to this day who's a waitress. I have other uncles and aunts who are engineers and teachers, but all of that sprung from having the stability, this base.

When I look at the women at La Cocina, I'm not just looking at them today. I'm thinking what is possible for their families, and that's what guides me in my work.

Wow! That's an awesome story. What advice do you have for people who are listening who are aspiring food entrepreneurs, or working with food entrepreneurs in communities like this one?

Oftentimes we all want to do things by ourselves, and then in the age of Internet we say, "I can find all the answers online." There are actually a lot of resources out there. There's small business development centers, or small business associations. There are places like La Cocina. There's the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center.

Seek the support you need to be able to develop a concrete business plan, be flexible, and know that it could possibly change. Most of them do. And then be self-reflective as to whether or not you really want to dedicate your life to this. That's for an entrepreneur.

For people working with communities, I think a hallmark of La Cocina is the individualized nature of our program. Every participant here has somebody one-on-one looking at that person's specific needs. Is this business plan truly tailored not just for the food industry, but for the specific type of food industry? The one-on-one nature of our work, I think, is what makes it so successful.

What are the specific food industries that you work with the most often?

We typically divide the food entrepreneurs in our program into two camps: the catering/hot food/restaurant camp, and the packaged/prepared food camp. Under packaged foods we have a lot of sweet treats. We have Kika's Treats, and Clairesquares, and a delicious Peruvian snack called alfajores. One of our entrepreneurs makes spicy pumpkin seeds. There are plans and specific action items that are more specific to packaged foods.

In the other camp we have the hot prepared foods. We have everything from great Salvadorian tamales, to different types of Mexican foods. You've got Mexican food from Mexico City, Mexican food from the Yucatan area, Japanese snack food. It's a different type of getting out into the market when you have a hot food, as opposed to packaged food.

We're bringing on six new entrepreneurs, and so we have Nigerian and Malaysian and Russian food coming on board, and a Latina woman who specializes in great cupcakes. We're talking tiramisu cupcakes and piƱa colada cupcakes, and wow, what's going to be coming out in 2010 is great.

Wow! That's totally exciting. How can listeners get involved with La Cocina, whether they're here in the Bay Area, or somewhere else and listening?

Well, we direct people first to our website, www.lacocinasf.org. On the website there are many ways to get involved. You can reach out directly to one of our entrepreneurs for an upcoming event you're having. You can donate to La Cocina online. There's a volunteer page, and a volunteer form you can fill out, and that puts you in a database where we'll reach out to you when we need volunteers.

If you think you're interested in helping to govern and guide the direction of La Cocina, the board, you'd write to me directly as the Executive Director, and I'd forward your information on to the board of directors.

A fantastic way to get involved is to attend an upcoming La Cocina event. We have cooking classes that happen here, and people bring their family and/or colleagues. They get trained in some specific area of cooking, and the evening always ends with a great meal, and there's wine flowing. It's just a super fun time.

Is there anything else about La Cocina that you didn't get to mention and wanted to add?

It would be great if your listeners looked out for La Cocina products in different stores, not just throughout the Bay Area, but even nationwide. I'm thinking Noe Valley Whole Foods. We have nine of our entrepreneurs there. I'm thinking Molly Stone's and Bi-Rite, and we're always at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza on Saturdays at the Farmers Market. Come out and get some La Cocina products.

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Cross-posted from BlogHer.com.


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