Helping immigrant food entrepreneurs

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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Photo of Tamales (Image by Flickr user rvacapinta (cc:by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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By Rachael Myrow

When you think of the "underground economy," you probably imagine guns or drugs, not empanadas or tamales. But it's expensive to line up business licenses and commercial kitchen space. And it's intimidating, too.

La Cocina is a non-profit with a very particular social mission. Caleb Zigas, the group's Executive Director, told PRI's The World:

We provide affordable commercial kitchen space and hands on technical assistance to low income and immigrant entrepreneurs who are launching food businesses. So really what we do is transition informal entrepreneurs – mostly women, mostly immigrant women who've been cooking on the streets, or to their friends and family – from the informal economy to the formal economy.

La Cocina brings budding capitalists into contact with people who can help them rise up. Professional chefs volunteer, as do specialists in marketing, food operations, and sales.

Veronica Salazar, the owner of El Huarache Loco, is one person helped by La Cocina. El Hurache is a traditional Mexican catering company and possibly soon, a restaurant. Five years ago, Salazar was selling food out of her own kitchen.

"I have informal business at home. Some of my customers told me about La Cocina," Salazar said.

The Mexico City native was skeptical when the folks at La Cocina said that her food could find an audience much bigger than Mexican expats nostalgic for a taste of home. But she worked with them and has never looked back. Now, Salazar sells products at local farmers markets, like her mole.

Salazar's mole was a key ingredient at a recent fundraiser for La Cocina, a tamale cooking class that drew in more than 40 eager students for $65 a ticket.

Many of the students who attended the fundraiser were already connected to La Cocina somehow. But the event still helped cement the relationship between the entrepreneurs and their support base.

The chefs at the event are "some of the best cooks in San Francisco," according to the executive director Zigas. "And what we see our role as doing is translating what's a very tough economy into something that's a potential for them to make a living for their families, doing what they love to do. So you're going to meet three awesome chefs tonight. You're hopefully going to have a really, really great time."

The Whole Foods supermarket chain donates a lot of the ingredients the chefs use. In Bay Area stores, it offers shelf space for their products. Local farmers markets make space as well for La Cocina chefs, and local non-profits and banks help provide access to capital.
Maria del Carmen Flores runs Estrallitas Snacks. She said she's always loved business, ever since she was a child helping her parents run a restaurant. She didn't need La Cocina's help to start a business, but La Cocina did help her to grow from very modest beginnings.

"I started selling plantain chips en la calle," in the street, she said. "I started the business with twenty dollars. I found out about La Cocina, and now I sell at the Alemany market on Saturdays and Sundays."

La Cocina is currently shepherding 28 businesses from tender shoot to robust sapling. Zigas said La Cocina gets about a call a week from somebody looking to start a food business. But he knows one of the reasons for La Cocina's success has to do with something any business owner will agree is key – location, location, location.

"In the Bay Area in particular, people love trying new flavors," Zigas said. "They love seeing things that are handmade. They love knowing that the person who made their food made it because they wanted to make it."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.