After taking a two-year break from admitting new businesses into its long-running incubator program—which focuses specifically on helping female chefs of color gain a foothold in the Bay Area’s restaurant industry—La Cocina is once again working with a new cohort of culinary creatives.
The San Francisco-based La Cocina officially resumed the mentorship program in May, announcing it would be working with six new Bay Area entrepreneurs. Many specialize in food with a Latin flair, but one of the aspiring restaurateurs is focused on Omusubi, or Japanese rice balls; another has found initial success with a fusion of soul food and Mexican cuisine.
A year ago, the future of La Cocina hung in the balance. The culinary mentorship program, which centers working class female immigrant entrepreneurs of color, had just opened the Municipal Marketplace in the heart of the Tenderloin, which organizers claimed was the first women-led food hall in the country. Covid had dramatically altered the dining landscape in San Francisco and beyond, but their takeout and delivery service met the moment.
The pandemic was a lesson in adaptation for La Cocina. In 2020, the nonprofit made the difficult decision to pause their incubator program and focus on the survival of their existing businesses.
Emiliana Puyana, La Cocina’s Program Director, said her team determined that the entrepreneurs who had already graduated from the program were the most vulnerable during the pandemic, as they had taken on the hefty expenses involved in operating a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “They were at the highest risk of losing everything they had worked so hard to build,” she said.
By putting a moratorium on new applicants, La Cocina was able to establish a relief fund and provide around $15,000 to each entrepreneur. They negotiated rent abatement with landlords. And over the past two years, none of La Cocina’s restaurants have faced full closure.
As more and more entrepreneurs began to show up to La Cocina’s community office hours, they realized it was time to restart the incubator. Puyana said part of the renewed interest in food entrepreneurship followed the “Great Resignation” that was catalyzed by Covid. “People had time to take stock or say for the first time out loud, like, ‘I'm not that happy with what I'm doing for a living or it doesn't feed my soul.’”
This new chapter in La Cocina’s story comes as the organization transitions in a new executive director, Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez.
La Cocina’s mission has particular resonance with Alvarez-Rodriguez, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who grew up in her mother’s Puerto Rican restaurant in Brooklyn. But Alvarez-Rodriguez and her team are supporting emerging restaurateurs in a pulverized business environment, where downtown areas still lie somewhat vacant as office workers have shifted to work-from-home or hybrid schedules. Supply chain shortages have wreaked havoc on daily operations and contributed to a growing crisis in the food system.
The pandemic pressures on restaurant owners also disproportionately impact La Cocina’s target demographic—working class female business owners—many of whom hold the burden of household responsibilities that traditionally fall to women.
The incubator’s curriculum has shifted to adapt to the current needs of restaurateurs. Fortunately, the entrepreneurs have plenty to contribute to these discussions, as many pivoted their business practices to suit the changing restaurant industry. “Instead of pretending we had the answers, we recognized quickly that the people who actually knew what needed to be done were our entrepreneurs, the folks that we had for so long been mentoring,” said Puyana.
One of those entrepreneurs is Victoria Lozano, a Venezuelan chef who named her restaurant, Andina, after her home region in the Andes mountains. Lozano quit her full-time job as a pastry chef to launch her business in March. She told The Standard that the women in the cohort have become fast friends, and that the program’s most important asset is the community of practice that it nurtures. “We have each other to support each other.”
Stephanie De La Cruz, another La Cocina entrepreneur who sells homemade ice cream and sorbet under the name De La Creamery, echoed Lozano’s sentiment. “The people are here to guide and teach me. I can be open and vulnerable and still accepted,” she said.
Since enrolling in the program, the entrepreneurs have stepped up to promote each other’s businesses. Recently, Lozano reached out to fellow cohort member Lilian Duran when Duran was having a slow day at the West Oakland farmers' market. A Havana-born homecook, Duran owns Clandestina Cocina, a Cuban pop-up that she started in 2018 but had to sideline while working as a sports photographer. Now that Duran is enrolled in the incubator program, her business has expanded to other farmers’ markets.
While Duran has no formal culinary training, she’s already found a community of regulars within the Bay Area’s Cuban population. She said, for them, her cuisine is like a lifeline. “Because that’s what I felt that I was missing when I moved to the Bay,” she said. “I couldn’t find the Cuban food that would cure my homesickness. And that’s what I’m aiming to do with my flavors.”
Lozano hopes to follow Duran’s lead and sell Venezuelan comfort food at her own neighborhood farmer’s market in the Mission. The area has few Venezualan eateries, as the majority of Latinx immigrants in the Mission hail from Central America.
La Cocina’s new entrepreneurs have also bonded over family food traditions. To this day, Lozano relies on her grandmother’s recipes. “I call her a lot,” she laughed.
Here’s a rundown of all six business in La Cocina’s current cohort:
Owner: Victoria Lozano
Style: Venezuelan comfort food
Signature Dish: Arepas
City: San Francisco
Owner: Carmen Anderson
Style: Peruvian cuisine
Signature Dish: Empanadas
City: East Bay
Note: Anderson’s El Farolito is unrelated to the San Francisco/Oakland taquerias of the same name.
Owner: Lilian Duran
Style: Traditional Cuban cuisine
Signature Dish: Ropas Viejas
Owner: Tiffany Keeling
Style: Mexican soul food
Signature Dish: Blaxican Burrito
Owner: Stephanie De La Cruz
Style: Handmade ice cream and sorbet
Signature Dish: Horchata ice cream
Owner: Erika Sanchez
Style: Japanese snacks
Signature Dish: Omusubi, or Japanese rice balls
City: San Francisco
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Emiliana Puyana's correct title, program director of La Cocina, and to note that La Cocina had paused admitting new applicants to its incubator program.