Saturday, July 28, 2012

Preview of 2012 SF Street Food Festival

One can't help but be impressed by La Cocina and its participants. Many were gathered last Thursday for a preview press event for the SF Street Food Festival coming up on August 18th. Along with tasty nibbles, there were participants with stories and ambitions for a successful future in food.

I first learned of La Cocina, an incubator kitchen, in 2010. (Please read my 2010 post on La Cocina and its operations.) A fast recap, La Cocina is an organization and commercial kitchen that assists immigrant and low income women to start food based businesses. They provide training in marketing, packaging, licenses and permits, and much more. The program has two tracts: prepared foods (catering, restaurants, mobile food vending) and packaged foods for retail sale. 

There are phases that each participant goes through. First is a thorough application process after which the successful candidate enters the pre-incubation period. During pre-incubation they learn about marketing, fine tuning their concept, financing, and more. The next phase is incubation where they actually start the business after getting assistance with permitting and investors. Finally they graduate after their business has achieved a secure, sustainable point and the business can now survive on its own. 

The preview had participants that were introducing their products whether they were in the incubation or graduated stage. Azalina's is one of the first La Cocina graduates. An immigrant from Malaysia, she has grown her food food business to include catering, having a stand at Off the Grid events, and packaging some of her items for Whole Foods and other markets.

Eji's Ethiopian was featuring some of the traditional Ethiopian dishes, all vegan. She had the injera bread they use to scoop their food with a bit of red lentil on top. Eji caters and has her food available via the Good Eggs website.

The SF Street Food Festival was started four years ago as a way to showcase La Cocina and raise funds for the program. The first festival was only two city blocks with about 20 vendors. This year there are 85 vendors covering over six blocks. Of the 85 vendors, 35 will be La Cocina participants showcasing their businesses.

I had the opportunity to interview La Cocina program director, Caleb Zigas. I had met him in 2010 when he gave us a tour of the facility. I wanted to followup with him and started by asking if he was seeing any trends. Not surprisingly, he mentioned that they are getting many more applicants due to the bad economy. People who have lost their jobs or just can't find a job are looking into starting their own food businesses, making the applicant screening even more competitive.

I asked Zigas what he thought about the Assembly Bill 1616 going through the State legislature right now. Known as the Cottage Food Industry bill, it would allow people to make certain retail food goods in their homes without having to rent a commercial kitchen. There are many who have a concern about food born illnesses if food isn't made in a commercial kitchen. Zigas said he didn't see an issue with small batches, but he said that those entrepreneurs will learn soon enough that it isn't the kitchen that is the biggest obstacle to growing a successful food business, it's all the other stuff that his program teaches - the marketing, permitting, etc.

La Cocina had started by visionaries who sponsored and donated funds to create the kitchen and facilities in the Mission District of San Francisco. Although an important part, Zigas says that La Cocina is pretty much self sustaining now. Revenue is generated through rental of the facilities, events such as the festival, and finally through the retail spaces where they sell participants' goods. There is La Cocina shop in the Ferry Terminal.

Such incubator kitchens are being created in other cities. I would love to see such a program in Sacramento.

In the meantime, be sure to attend the SF Street Food Festival on August 18th from 11-7. I highly recommend you BART in to the Mission to avoid the chaos of the streets. 
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