|By Carol Amoruso, Hispanic American Village Editor
My curiosity was immediately piqued some weeks back while perusing the January special issue of the culinary magazine Saveur, which included a round-up of their one hundred “favorite foods, restaurants, drinks, people, places and things” of 2006. I’d come upon listing thirty-three, headed, The Taste of Empowerment. Aside from the positive, catchy phrase and Saveur’s “dogooder” seal affixed to the copy, I was invited in by a photo of scores of plump, golden empanada clouds being set to cool by an absorbed woman in chef’s whites. I had to read on and learned of La Cocina Community Kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission district, an “incubator,” as they like to say—I love the metaphor, the femaleness of it and the illusion to an oven, like a womb—of nascent food preparation businesses, helping women with little or no capital learn business skills as well as affording them a shared professional kitchen from which to expand and streamline their production while growing their business.
A former, failed caterer, I ran to the website, thinking, if only La Cocina had been available to me, a home cook with ambitions but little savvy or moxie, all those 15 years ago! La Cocina accepts women-owned start-up or newly launched businesses with fewer than 6 employees and under $35,000 in assets. Women of color are most especially welcomed to apply. What more could a newbie micro-entrepreneurette with a love of food and gumption want than to hook up with a bunch of dynamic, successful women in support and sharing the mustard the Cocina gals have already learned to cut. They sound just great!
I found Barb Stuckey, board member who seemed the perfect person to talk to. In the for-profit world, she’s Executive Vice President for Marketing at Mattson, a food research and development corporation that does such intriguing things as developing the recipe for the most delicious chocolate chip cookie that’s also healthful. We chatted and then Barb was kind enough to reply to my email questionnaire. It follows. She also put in a pitch for volunteers: graphic designers and MBAs who can help with business planning. And for new donors, both individual and corporate. Visit La Cocina’s web site for further info.
HISPANIC AMERICAN VILLAGE: WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE PROJECT?
STUCKEY: I had been looking for volunteer opportunities when I read an article about La Cocina in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was blown away by what a perfect fit it seemed for me. Here was an organization that existed solely to help women start food businesses. What I do in my daytime job at Mattson is exactly that. Of course, at Mattson we work on a for-profit basis, and on a much larger scale. We help large food companies like Kraft, Nestle, Pepsi, and Starbucks come up with new business opportunities.
I loved the idea of helping entrepreneurial women become self-sufficient through the sale of food. It was a way for me to apply my professional knowledge in a volunteer environment.
It was love at first sight, I guess you could say!
HAV: WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES TO LA COCINA AS A BOARD MEMBER?
STUCKEY: I’m a brand-new board member, so my responsibilities right now are simply getting up to speed on how the organization runs.
HAV: WHAT DO YOU FEEL WILL BE YOUR LONG-TERM CONTRIBUTION?
STUCKEY: I hope to help La Cocina on two levels. First, I want to continue my involvement in the program. This means that I’ll continue to meet one-on-one with current and potential participants, helping them with marketing and product guidance.
Secondly, I hope to help La Cocina, the organization, become a self-sufficient positive force in the community.
HAV: WHAT IS THE ADVANTAGE OF AN ORGANIZATION THAT SUPPORTS FIRST-TIME WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS?
STUCKEY: People want to help people like themselves. As a result, we get a lot of women who are passionate about the program and want to donate money. We rely heavily on individual donors, so this is a great point of connection for us.
Many of our participants have been running informal businesses for years. Our job is to help these women formalize their businesses. We’re making this possible for women who have few assets and little or no income.
I also think that we get a lot of attention in the press because what we’re doing is so rare. Like your interest in us!
HAV: CAN YOU IDENTIFY ANY SPECIFIC PROBLEMS PARTICULAR TO WOMEN-RUN START-UPS?
STUCKEY: In general I think it’s fairly well accepted around the world that women know how to cook. It makes intuitive sense that a woman, even someone who is a recent immigrant or otherwise low-income, could be an expert in something food-related.
HAV: IS THE TRANSITION FROM THE COMFORT OF A GREAT HOME COOK TO A PROFESSIONAL CHEF AND BUSINESS OWNER A DIFFICULT ONE TO MAKE?
STUCKEY: There’s a huge risk in selling food. Food safety is something that many home cooks never have to think about because their food is usually cooked and eaten in the same location and occasion. The distribution of food requires refrigeration, freezers, packaging, and/or other formulation techniques that keep the food safe. That’s why access to a certified commercial kitchen like La Cocina is imperative for home cooks who don’t know the basics of food science or safety. We teach our participants these skills.
There’s a lot of preparation required before our entrepreneurs can sell a single (legal!) bite. This means obtaining licenses, writing business plans, formalizing recipes, and developing marketing materials. Obviously these skills are very different from those needed to make food that tastes great.
La Cocina helps women enroll in classes or programs that will help them get the skills they need. I meet with all the program participants one-on-one and offer individualized marketing and product consultation.
Many of our participants have worked in the food industry in the past, so it’s really not that much of a change for them. The biggest challenge is attitudinal. It requires a leap of faith to invest time and money to formalize the business.
Once the transition is made, though, our participants are astounded by how much more efficient they are. This allows them to grow the business quicker and easier.
HAVE: HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE LA COCINA GROW?
STUCKEY: Right now we’re looking for a few more program participants since we’re not at full capacity. We’re trying very hard to find the right people, though. This means finding women who fit our particular profile, who really need the support, who have a chance at success. We set them up to succeed, but they also have to be willing to work hard, and be passionate about what they do.
Our Program Director Caleb Zigas has developed a great process for making sure we’re getting this type of person.
HAV: IS THERE ONE PARTICULAR BUDDING ENTREPRENEUR STORY YOU’D LIKE TO RELATE?
STUCKEY: Veronica Salazar turned her informal weekend restaurant– that she used to run out of her apartment to supplement her income– into a profitable business. With the help of La Cocina she has formalized her business, completed a business planning course, created marketing materials, built a catering clientele, and, most significantly, opened a popular booth at Alemany Farmer’s Market here in San Francisco. Veronica is now not only able to support herself solely through her business but she’s also created 5 part time jobs for other members of her family and the community.
I’m also proud of Jill Litwin, who has already “graduated” from La Cocina. Her business, Peas of Mind, which is a line of frozen food for toddlers, is available in grocery stores throughout the Bay Area.
She basically outgrew us! Her volumes got to be such that she required a larger manufacturing facility than the kitchen at La Cocina. But finding a commercial manufacturer when you’re a small start-up with low volumes (compared to their high-speed capacities) is difficult. She’s been tenacious and smart about it and now she’s set to start making products at higher volumes. This frees her up to do more of the professional stuff required to build a business, like sales and marketing.
Betty Hall has also graduated from La Cocina. Her business, Southern Slant, operates a café at City College Evans Campus.