La Cocina & SF Street Food Festival - Part 1

Saturday, August 18, 2012 from 11 AM – 7 PM

Folsom Street between 22nd & 26th, San Francisco

Free admission. Cash for food. Proceeds benefit La Cocina.

Original Post: 8/20/10

Today I was privileged enough to get a media pass to the SF Street Food Festival put on by La Cocina thanks to Foodbuzz. This was the second year of a festival that is obviously going to be an annual event in San Francisco. There is so much information to share that I feel I need to split this into a two-parter. Today I will tell you about La Cocina and tomorrow I will share some of the festival.

La Cocina calls itself an “incubator kitchen”. The term “incubator”, as it is used in business, was a new one for me. Incubator organizations assist entrepreneurs with starting their businesses. They “nurture the development of entrepreneurial companies, helping them survive and grow during the start-up period, when they are most vulnerable.” Most incubator organizations help economically vulnerable communities, low income families, and other people who struggle to start a business. 

La Cocina provides this type of support for people who are looking to start some sort of food business. Their building contains a commercial kitchen which is a requirement for making and selling foods. Besides the physical space, they also provide support in the form of assistance with permits, funding, source vendors, etc.  With this support, people, mostly women, are able to start legitimate businesses, create jobs, and support themselves, their families and communities.

If you visit the Mission District in San Francisco you are immediately struck by the diversity. This was an area of the city that I had never visited before and as soon as I came out of the BART station I was struck by the numerous signs in all sorts of languages for many types of businesses. While there are plenty of legal restaurants and food stores, it turns out that there are a lot of underground, “informal” businesses as well. That means a person, for example, cooking tamales in their home and then selling them out on the street.

In 2005 La Cocina was formed by a coalition of non-profit agencies and a generous anonymous visionary. La Cocina, the site and the organization, helps people to turn their informal food business into a legal and profitable business. The entrepreneurs can choose to take their businesses a variety of directions. They can go from street food to brick and mortar restaurant, create and market a food product to be sold in stores, start a catering business, etc. Through it all, La Cocina provides guidance until they can stand on their own two feet.

In their building there is a 2,200 square foot commercial kitchen. Commercial kitchens must pass health inspections just like restaurants to ensure that the food that is made there has been handled in sanitary conditions. Caterers, for example, will have their own commercial kitchen. But for people trying to start a fledgling food business, there are commercial kitchens available in all cities that can be rented by the hour or day. You could have a woman starting a pie business that rents the commercial kitchen on Wednesdays to cook up hundreds of pies to sell for the coming weekend. This is the sort of kitchen found at La Cocina. It is rented at low rates for people who participate in their program. At any time there can be as many as eight businesses sharing the kitchen space at the same time.

The people who are accepted into the La Cocina program must go through an application and screening process. They must fit criteria for such things as income level and business plans. Currently La Cocina has about twenty businesses that it assisting. The length of assistance can last up to five years. By five years it is hoped that the entrepreneur has reached a level where they are now self-sufficient and then are considered “graduates” of the program.

Here is a list of a few of the businesses to demonstrate the diversity:

Sabores del Sur - Chilean food such as empanadas and alfajores
Estrellita’s Snacks - El Salvadoran street food such as pupusas
Anda Piroshki - Russian piroshikis
Clairesquares - Irish shortbread treats with caramel and chocolate
Gobba Gobba Hey - gourmet moonpies

Some of the businesses now have agreements for the sale of their products in such places as Whole Foods, Andronico's, Blue Fog Markets and more. You can also find the products in La Cocina's booth at the Ferry Terminal.

Part of La Cocina's focus these days in working to get San Francisco's regulations on street food vendors eased. Most entrepreneurs start "informally" or as street vendors with aspirations to become legitimate restaurants and food businesses. Currently the laws make it very difficult and confusing for them to make that leap.

Revised regulations and policies that allow street food vendors greater flexibility in how, where, and when they can sell their goods to reach a broader consumer base can help to activate underutilized space, provide job opportunities to entrepreneurs at all levels of the economic spectrum, and has the ability to provide the city with increased tax revenue and jobs at a time when it would clearly be valued.
There are similar regulatory obstacles for vendors here in Sacramento. By watching and learning from what is happening in San Francisco, hopefully we can see some change here as well.