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San Francisco Kitchen Lends Low-Income Food Entrepreneurs A Hand

San Francisco's Mission District is a cultural crossroads for food, where Mexican bodegas and burrito shops meet gourmet bakeries and cutting-edge California cuisine. It's also home to a kitchen where some of the most promising food startups in the region are getting a boost.

When 52-year-old Alicia Villanueva migrated to San Francisco from Mexico in 2001, she began preparing tamales at home to make a living. She found clientele for her authentic, quality food easily, but says that she struggled to grow the business.

"I'd buy a little and then cook, save a little, buy more ingredients, and on and on," she says. "But that money went to support my family and pay the utility bills."

What she needed to expand was access to an industrial kitchen.

In 2010, Villanueva found La Cocina, the Spanish word for "kitchen." Founded in 2005 by an anonymous donor, the nonprofit organization provides equipment, mentoring, industrial kitchens and — most importantly — access to capital to low-income food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area.

Michelle Fernandez runs La Cocina's development and communications department. She says there's huge demand for the program, which takes on only 30 up-and-coming entrepreneurs at a time.

"It's pretty competitive," she notes, adding that all applicants are required to submit a business plan.

La Cocina weighs a few factors in deciding who makes the cut: Cooks and bakers have to show they're ready to put in the time and sweat equity. They also need thick skin to handle constructive criticism and feedback.

Fernandez says most people underestimate the challenges. "A lot of people don't understand how insanely hard this is," she says, especially what it takes to scale up recipes and production.

Scaling up is a critical skill regardless of whether the cooks want to create a product for retail distribution, or their own catering business, or the brass ring: a restaurant with their name above the door.

Those interested in catering can join La Cocina's own operation, which serves weddings, local microfinance institutions and tech giants like Google and Twitter.

Others develop their own products to sell at weekly street food fairs, like Off the Grid. Every Friday night near San Francisco's marina, four La Cocina vendors, including 39-year-old single mother Bini Pradhan, are among the stalls of ethnic food. Pradhan learned to cook in her mother's Kathmandu kitchen as a child, and hopes to see her Nepalese turkey dumplings sold throughout the Bay Area and the U.S.

"I came to La Cocina to pursue my dream," Pradhan says. "It would have been impossible without them. They've given me access to marketing, business planning and catering."

Entrepreneurs spend roughly three to five years in the program, learning about operations, finance, marketing and other business basics. They also can meet angel investors, microfinanciers and venture capitalists through La Cocina's connections.

Many products developed at La Cocina are now sold at Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma's online shop. There's hummus Donna Sky makes with her Palestinian mother's recipe, and chocolate-covered graham crackers by Cristina Arantes. They were chosen to be part of a special Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor.

As small-business owners mature in the program, they eventually work on a six-month exit strategy and graduate. The lead time provides a cushion while the entrepreneurs locate outside space and demonstrate they can market and manage operations for their business.

Alicia Villanueva has come a long way since she started the program in 2010. She's still selling tamales, but now she's got a website, Tamales Los Mayas, and a cart vending them at Justin Herman Plaza and Off the Grid. She also employs nine women, five of them full-time.

"My last step is to open my restaurant and see my three kids go to college," says Vilanueva. "I'm almost there."

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