Entrepreneurs given chance to start culinary business

January 21, 2011 7:33:44 PM PST
Do you think you could be the next great chef or restaurant owner? It's tough if you don't have any business experience. That's why the success of a place called La Cocina is so remarkable. ABC7 took a look at the San Francisco kitchen that's helping food entrepreneurs beat the odds.

"This is from my grandmom and my mom's recipe," says Alicia Villanueva.

Villanueva makes a tasty tamale.

"This is avocado salsa that gives a really delicious flavor for the tamales," says Villanueva.

Villanueva is cooking her fabulous creations at La Cocina in San Francisco's Mission District. La Cocina is a non-profit incubator kitchen, helping good cooks turn an idea into a business.

"What we're doing is looking for natural entrepreneurs," says Caleb Zigas, the executive director La Cocina.

They are looking for entrepreneurs who are either low-income, are immigrants, or both with a passion for food.

"I make hummus. I'm the only local organic hummus in the Bay Area," says Donna Sky.

"We sell a Japanese food called Onigiri, that's very popular in Japan, but I never seen anything like those out here in San Francisco," says Kan Hasegawa.

"This is huarache, it's a handmade tortilla with beans inside," says Veronica.

"We have businesses that want to be caterers, we have businesses that want to be food carts, we have a business that's going to launch a restaurant, and we have businesses that sell packaged foods and do food service," says Zigas.

Businesses accepted into La Cocina's program get to use the commercial kitchen at a greatly reduced rental price, but that's just the beginning. They also get help with their entire business plan.

"Just something as simple as the packaging, getting the nutrition facts," says Sky.

And even more critical, Sky says "They help you taste it and they give you really honest feedback."

Veronica Salazar was one of the first clients, with a business called El Huarache Loco. They cater and sell food at farmers markets.

"My husband works at one farmers market with my daughter. And I go to the other farmers market, and it's a whole family team," says Salazar.

The business is so successful Salazar now has seven part time employees and will soon open a restaurant in Marin County.

"We are working right now with the architects," says Salazar.

Most of those accepted into La Cocina's incubator program are women. An exception is the two-man team that operates Onigilly - a new food cart at Justin Herman Plaza in Downtown San Francisco.

"This is Japanese black seaweed called hijiki, very healthy and tasty," says Hasegawa.

It took about two years for the owners to get from their idea to a long line of customers every lunch hour. They say they couldn't have done it without La Cocina.

"Since this is my first time actually to have my own company, I didn't even know where to go. So like any questions I have, they have the answers," says Hasegawa.

Villanueva is hoping for the same kind of success with her tamale business. She's been with La Cocina since July doing catering and now she's raising money for her own food cart, right next to Onigilly.

"I'm so happy because I start to see like my dreams come true ... Working hard and trying to raise my business," says Villanueva.

La Cocina gets about half its money from foundations and donations and the rest comes from sales of gift baskets and food made by their clients. You can order food or apply to be a La Cocina business at:www.lacocinasf.org

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney