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Black, trans food entrepreneurs complain about treatment at San Francisco culinary incubator

Santana Tapia, co-founder of Fluid Cooperative Cafe, works behind the counter at La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace in San Francisco on March 30, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Entrepreneurs at San Francisco-based nonprofit La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace food hall, as well as its culinary incubator, are complaining about what they see as a pattern of tokenism and exploitation at the organization. 

For Sarello Buyco, these problems started to come to a head on Nov. 9, when the marketplace’s manager asked him about moving Buyco’s pop-up coffee shop out of the food hall. The trans-owned Fluid Cooperative Cafe was founded by Santana Tapia, JoJo Ty and Shannon Amitin and opened in the marketplace in August 2021. La Cocina said Fluid has a month-to-month agreement for the pop-up space. 

Buyco said that the moving request followed months of conflicts between Fluid employees and La Cocina’s marketplace staff. In particular, Buyco said he feels that La Cocina did not respect his cafe’s policy against serving police officers.

In a written statement, La Cocina’s staff, which is led by executive director Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez and deputy director Leticia Landa, told The Standard that while the organization welcomes everyone to the food hall, it respects every business owner’s decision about who they will or won’t serve. 

JoJo Ty poses by the entrance to La Cocina's Municipal Marketplace in San Francisco on March 30, 2023. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Conflict Over Refusing Service to Police

According to Buyco, on March 31, 2022, Fluid’s baristas were getting ready to close so they could host a fashion show event for Trans Day of Visibility when a police officer stepped up to order coffee. After explaining that, as a rule, Fluid doesn’t serve the police, that officer complained to a staffer at La Cocina. 

Shortly after that encounter, Buyco said La Cocina arranged for a police captain and “a token trans woman cop” to have a dialogue with Buyco and his fellow coop members, which he said felt coercive. 

“We’re not going to serve cops when our lives are continuously at risk at the hands of police,” Buyco said. “Cops can take off their uniforms, but we can’t take off our skin color, and we can’t take off our transness.” 

Co-owner Tapia said she shares Buyco’s frustrations, adding that she feels the way the nonprofit handled the conflict between Fluid and the police clarified things for her.

“It was triggering, but it also showed us that the space was not built for us,” she said. “Cops don’t keep us safe—we’re scared when cops are around.” 

La Cocina’s staff wrote in an email to The Standard that they did not witness the interaction between the owners of Fluid and the police but became aware of the situation on April 5, 2022. The staff said that it was the SFPD Tenderloin Station police captain who proposed a dialogue and that the individuals who joined all consented to meeting.

“The Fluid team has given us the opportunity to create a welcoming space for the queer and trans community,” they wrote. “We’ve learned from and acknowledged their decision not to serve police, which is rooted in their community’s historical experience with law enforcement.” 

Ty said that they have mixed feelings about their time at the marketplace, particularly after that encounter with the police. 

“We’re always fighting just for existence,” they said. “But it means so much for other radical trans people of color in the Bay Area to see Fluid right here in Civic Center.” 

The executive staff of La Cocina told The Standard that they asked Fluid to move because they wanted to open up the pop-up space to La Cocina program participants.  

The Fluid cooperative has launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising $100,000 to open a brick-and-mortar cafe at 142 McAllister St.—a storefront that has been vacant for about three years and most recently belonged to Urbean Cafe.

In the meantime, Buyco said Fluid plans to host other pop-ups around the city. Fluid’s last planned day open at La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace is June 25—the last Sunday of Pride Month. Ty said they plan to cherish the time Fluid has left at the marketplace, which is currently home to seven other businesses.

“Leaving is sad,” they said. “But I’m excited about the future of Fluid and excited to continue to support the talented people who work at the marketplace.”

Overall, Buyco said, he feels La Cocina has strayed from its mission of uplifting BIPOC chefs.

“La Cocina is not an organization that knows how to be of community or with community,” he said. 

In an email to The Standard, the staff of La Cocina expressed gratitude toward the team at Fluid.

“Fluid is a wonderful business with a powerful mission, and we are glad that the City of San Francisco and the community are supporting their next steps,” they wrote. “We are committed to furthering our mission in providing La Cocina program participants and graduates opportunities through the Marketplace to formalize and keep growing their businesses.”

Santana Tapia, left, and Sarello Buyco, right, pose in front of Fluid Cooperative Cafe. | Jesse Rogala/The Standard

‘Tokenism’ Over Black History Month? 

According to La Cocina’s website, the nonprofit’s mission is to “cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses.” Tiffany Keeling, however, told The Standard that she feels La Cocina is guilty of tokenism and exploitation. 

The Pacifica-based chef has been incubating her Mexican soul food kitchen, P-Town Birrias, with the nonprofit for about a year. She operates her business as a traveling pop-up, not at the marketplace, and she told The Standard that it’s difficult to access La Cocina’s kitchen facilities even as a member of the current incubator cohort. 

La Cocina took issue with this framing. According to the nonprofit, Keeling has not gone through the required steps to use La Cocina’s kitchen and the chef currently has no outstanding requests to use the kitchen.

Still, Keeling said that Black History Month was a true turning point in her view of the organization. On the last night of February, La Cocina hosted “The Gathering” at the marketplace—a free family-style feast to celebrate the chefs and artists of the African Diaspora. Keeling was one of the featured chefs, but she said La Cocina’s approach to the event left a bad taste in her mouth. 

She explained that the last time she contributed to a dinner at the marketplace, the organization served food on fine china, but when she asked if the same setup would apply at The Gathering, a staff member told her they would use paper plates, because it “wasn’t worth the effort.” Keeling said that response made her feel undervalued. 

“I think the issue that many people at La Cocina have is the blatant favoritism that transpires within the organization,” she said.

a large dining hall with high ceilings, several kiosks and a few patrons
People eat lunch in La Cocina's Municipal Marketplace in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood on April 10, 2023. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard | Source: Sarah Holtz/The Standard

She added that the chefs were only reimbursed for their ingredients at the Black History Month dinner. 

“Soul food is a lot of work to cook,” she added. “We took scraps that the slave master gave us—now it’s called fine dining.”

To be verbally celebrated for her achievements as a Black chef by La Cocina, Keeling said, and then to be treated poorly behind the scenes, made her feel tokenized—a feeling she said she’s discussed with other Black chefs in the program. 

“It’s just not fair to the Black people at La Cocina,” she said. “They’re using us as a prop and really exploiting our culture. I don’t want to be used.” 

La Cocina’s staff acknowledged Keeling’s feedback in an email to The Standard.

“We respect Tiffany’s perspective and are taking steps to address it,” they wrote. “We strive to create open lines of communication with our entrepreneurs to learn how we as staff or our processes can improve. Feedback like this is an important reminder that there’s still more work to do.”

La Cocina added that all chefs who participated in the Black History Month event were paid a flat fee for their labor plus the cost of ingredients.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional comments from La Cocina.