La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference

La Cocina is an amazing organization.  They’ve been around for 10 years.  La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference was held the first weekend in November with Saturday being a food tour of the many great success stories that La Cocina has produced.  Sunday entails a conference session with many diverse speakers, talking about everything from marketing, labor, sustainability to business planning.  I chose to go to the Saturday tour.  It was fascinating.  This year, instead of being connected with the La Cocina Street Food Fair, held the third weekend in August, La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference 2015 was held separately to allow more attention to detail.  The food tour was by bus, the first time La Cocina has done that.

We met first at La Cocina’s incubator facility on Folsom near 26th.  Pastries, juice and coffee were provided.  Caleb Zigas is the Director of La Cocina since its inception and the lead on La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference.  Caleb explained while we toured La Cocina that the space is two floors and 4400 square feet.  It cost $1M to build through the efforts of three community service organizations.  To help mostly women of ethnic descent create prepared or package food, affordable shared kitchen space is key and an answer to the barriers of entry.  La Cocina has eight workstations and rolling, locked lockers to store materials and dry goods.  So far, 34 business have gone through the La Cocina program with 20 graduates, with 14 of them brick and mortar.  There will be 4-5 more graduates in the next three months. 

La Cocina is open 7 days a week from 6am to 10pm.  They also offer rental space to existing restaurants and such at $11 per hour.  La Cocina holds orientations every two months and then a one-hour consult to those wishing to proceed.  90% of the clients are women who suffer the same wage discrepancy, getting paid 75¢ to every dollar a man makes.  Only 25% of food businesses are women-owned. 

There’s an advisory committee of staff and individual professionals who review four key elements to the success of the applicant –

-strength of business plan  (Renaissance Entrepreneur Center is a key sponsor and provider of business planning. 

-product quality

-product viability

-entrepreneurial spirit

There are usually around 15 applicants with 2-6 getting accepted.  The new clients meet two hours every two weeks to review various aspects of business, like marketing.  This goes on for 6-8 months.  The clients are continually screened by established benchmarks.  $5000 to $500,000 of capital is needed, depending on the business.  80% of the clients pass. 

The next step is the incubation with a plan for growth and an exit strategy.  A minimum goal is to see sales of $100,000 within three to five years.

Once the 30 or so people were gathered, we walked to a Google bus!!  Yes, Google bus!!  The seats have the Google logo embroidered on each seat.  I grabbed the seat upstairs and in front for the best view. 

Onigilly, on Kearny near Pine, was our first stop.  They started with La Cocina in 2005.  Two young men from Japan were simply looking for onigiri, the Japanese version of healthy fast food in a stuff rice ball.  They now have three locations, and the second owner opted to sell his share and move back to Japan.  Koji and his wife were very welcoming, and took time to discuss their history.  They opened their first store in 2007, and now have three shops.  They hope to expand to more than 500 nationwide.  At Onigilly, you will find vegan and meat options in a beautiful nori triangle of the selected option and rice.  They are delicious and inexpensive at $2.76 per onigiri.  The organic matcha lemonade they served will knock you off your feet.

Next, we headed to Visitacion Valley in the south part of San Francisco where Love & Hummus is located.  Donna, the owner, has just expanded into offices down the street.  Donna was adamant that she wanted to have her  business San Francisco based, and Visitacion Valley is one of the last remaining affordable rent districts.  Donna’s hummus comes in a variety of flavors, and you can find them at Whole Foods.  Her ingredients are mostly locally sourced, with one farm providing her chickpeas.  We got a sample at the end of the tour to take home, and confirmed their deliciousness.

Guisell, from Sabores del Sur, was on hand to tell her about her business.  Her Alfajores are SO popular, she is now called ‘The Cookie Lady’!  And, man are they good.  Like an oreo, but shortbread cookies and Dulce de Leche filling.  Guisell also has a restaurant of the same name in Walnut Creek that I’m anxious to try, and she’s working on production of empanadas from Chile, her home.

Next up was the Alemany Farmers Market.  It’s a bustling market, the first in California.  You will find produce at half the price of Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and the diversity of the offerings will blow you away.  It’s also interesting that the Alemany Farmers Market is run by the City of San Francisco.  In 2006, the city partnered with La Cocina to allow its clients to serve food from tents set up alongside the farmers.  El Juarache Loco, meaning the crazy shoe, is one of them.  Their operation was so successful that the family was able to open a restaurant of the same name at Larkspur Landing.  What fun it would be to take a ferry from SF to Larkspur for Mexican food.

Estrellita’s Snacks down the way was the next stop at Alemany Farmers Market for excellent pupusas and then a quick tour of the market itself.

Lunch was served outside the Noe Valley Farmers Market by Isabel of El Buen Comer (the good taste).  They’re also working on a brick and mortar location in the Mission which should open in February.  More on that later.  Another family business, El Buen Comer served us a delicious spicy chicken posole soup.  Posole is hominy.  Then we had little taquitos filled and covered with cheese.

Across the street at Whole Foods, we were introduced to Harv.  Each region of Whole Foods has a ‘forager’, a person responsible for sourcing local products.  Whole Foods is the only chain food store that allows vendors to deliver their product, which saves the vendors a considerable amount of time, money and logistical requirements.  We were tasked with going into the store and finding products we liked, taking photos and posting them on Twitter for a chance to win a $100 gift cert.  Darn, missed out on that one with my picture of the amazing Sonoma Brinery Manhattan-style Pickles.  I like that their packaging says in huge letters what it actually is.

Next, we were invited into the upcoming El Buen Comer restaurant space at Mission and 30th.  It is now 95% complete after two years in the works.  The owner has worked with La Cocina before, providing buildouts and reasonable rents for graduating La Cocina clients.

Still, the restaurant business in San Francisco is a very expensive one.  Caleb explained that their clients have access to three funds to capitalize their business through the efforts of La Cocina – Kiva, which is a loan to be paid back, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo  Kiva offers only $10,000.  Be careful with these funds, however.  It’s social capital for physical capital without consequences.  You need to follow organizations like La Cocina to make sure your investment in these companies is worthwhile.

El Buen Comer is a $1M development.  You can see from the pictures that the space is specifically built out for El Buen Comer with colorful, pretty Mexican tiles that are similar to the restaurant’s logo.  Restaurant space in the Mission is $5/square foot.  Think 1000 feet, and you’re talking real money.  El Buen Comer will have 4 cooks at $15/hour along with four staff in the front.  Then, there’s benefits required by the city to be offered. That costs El Buen Comer another $200/day.  Loans run at 8% interest with paybacks of a $100,000 loan over five years, another serious hit to the pocketbook.  We were treated to a delicious shot of tequila to toast Isabel and her restaurant, and then moved on.

We walked the few long blocks up Cortland, longer than usual with a shot of tequila under the belt.  We landed at a co-op space where Anda Piroshki enjoys a significant following.  Anda just wanted to make the snack food of her native Russia, and she has pulled that off big time.  We were served a vegetarian or meat and potato piroshki.  They were cooked perfectly, and since I in the ‘hood, I’ll be going back there for sure along with most of the places and foods we visited on this wonderful tour.  See you there next year??

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