The non-profit incubator, that works with low-income food entrepreneurs, is cooking up big things.

By Katherine Martinelli
October 21, 2019

When Bini Pradhan joined La Cocina in 2012, she was selling momos—Nepalese dumplings—out of her car in San Francisco. The Nepal-born, Indian-trained chef was finally living on her own again after moving out of a shelter for domestic violence survivors. She spent her evenings delivering her food around San Francisco while her two year-old-son slept in the car. Pradhan's cooking had a base of devoted customers, but she lacked the resources to take things to the next level. Joining La Cocina, a non-profit incubator that works with low-income food entrepreneurs—particularly those who are women, immigrants, and/or people of color—changed all that. She now has two brick-and-mortar locations of Bini's Kitchen: a weekday lunch takeout kiosk and, more recently, a sit-down casual eatery. "Without La Cocina it would not have been possible at all," says Pradhan.

Jenny Love / La Cocina

Pradhan is one of over 120 aspiring restaurateurs who have come up through the La Cocina program, which provides affordable commercial kitchen space, business mentorship, connections to sales opportunities (from farmers' markets to catering), and the benefit of La Cocina's formidable PR network. La Cocina has space for about 30 to 40 businesses at a time to be actively part of the program, and there is no expiration. Participants can stay at the incubator for one year or 10; once they are ready to strike out on their own, La Cocina helps with everything from finding a space to negotiating a lease. Even once they graduate, a business is always considered part of the La Cocina family.

For Pradhan, that is absolutely the case. She was one of the chefs highlighted in We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream, La Cocina's cookbook. And Bini's Kitchen will be one of eight kiosks at La Cocina's forthcoming Municipal Marketplace, which the nonprofit claims will be the first women-powered food hall in the country. Municipal Marketplace, which is a partnership with the City of San Francisco, is slated to open Spring 2020 in an abandoned post office in an ethnically diverse low-income neighborhood in San Francisco known as The Tenderloin. La Cocina's lease goes through 2025, at which point the building will be razed in order to make way for affordable housing.

Though it's only a temporary situation, it's a win-win for all parties, says Linda Esposito, director of the Municipal Marketplace. "While the city puts together the funding for the affordable housing, the residents wanted the space activated in order to make that corner a safer space for all," she explains. "We feel the six years we have will be a sufficient time for the businesses to create meaningful assets for their next endeavor." La Cocina is also looking at this first food hall endeavor as a proof of concept that it can be done and can be successful as they hope to replicate the model and assist other cities that want to follow suit.

Related: These Food Incubators Are a Recipe for Success

Eric Wolfinger / Jenny Love / La Cocina

While they hope to attract customers from near and far, the ultimate goal of the Municipal Marketplace is not to become the next flashy tourist destination, but rather to be a real asset to the community by creating jobs, offering affordable healthy food, and building a true community space. "As much as we celebrate the coming of deliciousness from the food hall, just as important is how the space will be a community space," says Esposito. "We are planning on running programs that amplify economic and social equity, and activities that strive to build connections for residents like community dinners, food exchange, as well as education workshops that focus on healthy eating and family finances."

La Cocina opened up applications for the marketplace late last year to all current participants and graduates. Their aim was to select a mix of new businesses and mature ones—like Bini's Kitchen—whose owners could act in part as mentors. Seven businesses have been selected, with the eighth spot reserved as a pop-up space for new La Cocina participants as well as local businesses and entrepreneurs to experiment with. When narrowing down the applicants, they opted for a variety of different foods based specifically on feedback from the community, which has consistently been a crucial component throughout the process. Research and collaborative planning indicated that Tenderloin residents are eager for healthy food that goes beyond salad.

Providing healthy, affordable, delicious food is Pradhan's greatest goal for the space. "Everybody who cannot afford food, they have the concept that good food can only be found if you have money," she says. "I want to break that norm." From the scratch made roti to the hand-ground spices, everything in Bini's Kitchen is homemade and reasonably priced. Pradhan's other goal is to share Nepalese food, which she says is still too often confused with Indian cuisine.

The other kiosks will offer specialties like pupusas, Mexican comfort food, Senegalese cuisine, and more. Husband and wife team Wafa and Mounir Bahloul's Algerian restaurant concept Kayma will also be opening in the Municipal Marketplace. They've been with La Cocina for about two years and this will be their first endeavor, almost like a capstone project. Mounir came to the United States a decade ago and Wafa married and joined him five years ago. Now they have two small children (Wafa's water broke at La Cocina) and are trying to get their business off the ground. "Without La Cocina we maybe could have done it in 10 more years on our own, or maybe never," says Mounir.

Wafa agrees and says it's a dream come true. "I cannot wait to open, to be there at Municipal Marketplace cooking. It's amazing. Maybe that day I will cry. It's so exciting."

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