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La Cocina

Cooking From Scratch to Success

Itís Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. Amidst the sea of local produce and meat purveyors, one booth in particular has become the darling of them all, just two months after its introduction to the market. Walk into La Cocina's booth, and you will find unique and delicious prepared foods that range from South African meat puffs to homemade plantain chips to Brazilian honey cakes.

However, there is a bigger story here. Each of these featured foods is a brainchild of an individual entrepreneur supported by La Cocina, a small-business incubator program. With a focus on Latina, immigrant women and women of color, La Cocina helps enable these entrepreneurs to launch and expand their businesses by providing assistance with tasks like packaging design, menu focus, acquiring permits, and managing a business.

Participants in the program also have access to an immaculate 4,400 square feet commercial kitchen space located in a donated sleek Mission District building. The array of equipment at their disposal include a 30-gallon tilting skillet, a 60-quart Hobart mixer, a prep station totaling 2,000 square feet, walk-in freezer, and dry storage space. Use of the space and equipment costs at most $15 an hour for those in the program. Commercial businesses that do not qualify for the program may also rent at a standard rate of $40 and hour.

La Cocina has acquired its current 15 participants mostly from outreach in ethnic communities, as well as some from word of mouth. A number of these individuals were previously operating out of their homes, or selling on the street, having no means to grow their business into a working economy. La Cocina has assisted them in focusing on the business aspect of making their great products.

Still, gaining acceptance into the program is a rigorous process. To begin with, applicants must have five or less employees and less than $35,000 in assets. They must provide a business plan, cash flow projections, attend a formal interview, and provide product samples or sample menu items. La Cocina connects potential participants with other community programs and advisors that can assist them in areas such as business plan writing, distribution and marketing. Professional experience, entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to make changes in order to make the business successful are also considered during the acceptance process.

Once a business is brought in, it is incubated in the program from one to five years and during that time is referred to different contacts and mentors depending on its needs. Impressive food industry names that have been involved with giving one-on-one assistance include Barb Stuckey of Mattson, the countryís largest food and beverage development firm, James Schenk of Destino Restaurant, Patricia Unterman of Hayes Street Grill, and Traci des Jardins of Jardiniere, Acme Chophouse and Mijita.

Every entrepreneur associated with La Cocina has a unique, inspiring story. One common denominator amongst all of them is their passion for what they do and their drive to succeed. Maria del Carmen Flores has been making her native El Salvadoran plantain chips since she was 4. When she moved to San Francisco, she found a niche for her chips and began selling her product on the street. After taking a business planning class through ALAS (Association of Latina Alumnae of Smith) and being accepted into La Cocina, Flores has significantly expanded her sales, selling her product in 40-50 markets around the city.

Claire Keane grew up in Ireland experimenting with her motherís sweets recipes, eventually creating her own twist on a snack: a delicious blend of shortbread, caramel and chocolate, now known as Clairesquares. Claire graduated from the Womenís Initiative for Self-Employment and eventually joined La Cocina. In the five months since Claireís involvement with the program, she has already expanded her line of artisanal baked goods to include Flapjacks, delicious bites of rolled oats and Irish syrup dipped in chocolate. (She plans to add a dessert sauce and ice cream to the mix.) Currently, her products are available by mail order through the company website They are also sold at the Alemany Farmerís Market, but in the near future, she has big plans to move into retail.

Kikaís Treats is another success in the making. Introduced to La Cocina by a fellow baker friend, owner Cristina Besher (or Kika) has been baking professionally over 7 years in restaurants, bakeries, and in catering. While she was working on her business plan, she went home to Brazil and was inspired by traditional honey cakes, which she could not find once she returned to San Francisco. She re-designed her business plan to incorporate this traditional delicacy along with other tasty treats, including caramelized graham crackers dipped in chocolate.

Christina applied to La Cocina in July 2006 and by December was already selling her products in retail establishments including Rainbow Grocery, Real Food Company, and The Pasta Shop. Her focus has been organic baked goods (chocolate-covered of course) using the finest ingredients including E. Guittard, the noted chocolatierís premium line, and Straus Family Creamery butter. Kika is currently working on a partnership with San Francisco Chocolate Company.

While it has been lauded for its contribution to the community by much of the media, including a feature broadcast on NPR and inclusion on Saveur Magazineís Top 100, La Cocina continues to be a work in progress. The program hopes to establish full non-profit status in the next few months. With the business successes and the positive feedback it has received, it would be a wonderful thing if the program continued to grow beyond San Francisco.