We Are La Cocina | Leticia Landa & Caleb Zigas
We Are La Cocina
By Leticia Landa & Caleb Zigas
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Leticia Landa: I'm Leticia Landa and I am the co-author of We are La Cocina, Recipe for an American Dream.
Suzy Chase: La Cocina began as a tiny grassroots organization in a city, San Francisco, with one of the most competitive food industries in the nation.
You're the deputy director and you joined as the third staff member in 2008. How did you learn about the organization and why did you come on board?
Leticia Landa: That's such a great question. It was so long ago.
I actually read about La Cocina in the New York Times. They had had just an article written about the organization that featured Veronica Salazar who's the owner of El Huarache Loco. She's also the first person in the cookbook because she was the first person who joined the program. I just thought it sounded like such an incredible organization.
I knew that I was going to be moving to San Francisco after I finished college and so I just made a mental note like, "Oh, I should look them up and figure out ways to support them."
When I moved to San Francisco I went to the booth that they had at the Ferry Building, which we actually still have so many years later. I just chatted with them and whoever was working there at the time. Just basically said, "I think what you do is really cool. My family is from Mexico City. I love cooking. I just think this is a really amazing organization." I happened to meet the woman who is the executive director of the organization at that time at a Christmas party. The stars aligned.
We were talking and I was just telling her a little bit about my background and how I would love to help out in some way, volunteer, translate. Basically said, "I think you should work here." It really was happenstance, I guess. But was at the right place at the right time and I knew what they did and was really interested in the work.
That's how I came on board.
Suzy Chase: Talk about La Cocina and what they do and how they support businesses.
Leticia Landa: La Cocina is a nonprofit that's a business incubator for food businesses. Our mission is to work with talented low income entrepreneurs. Our focus is on women, immigrants, and people of color and work with them to launch and grow food businesses by providing them with access to a shared youth commercial kitchens pace, which we have on Fulsome Street in the Mission District in San Francisco.
Also, access to a lot of industry specific business assistance, which we do both through our staff and also through a network of volunteers. So graphic designers, lawyers, basically any of the different resources that a small business owner might normally just go out and pay for. We are able to subsidize the cost of that and really bring in a ton of lower cost and volunteer resources to our businesses.
The last thing that we really focus on is access to sales. La Cocina is a commercial kitchen. We don't have a store front or restaurant or anything that people can come to at our location. We have to partner with farmers' markets through catering with stores and all of those are ways that we can use our social capital and our bigger brand as an organization to really make sure that the small businesses that we're incubating get access to places to sell because that's the most important thing.
When someone's small and starting off it can be really challenging to just find your customers. That's a huge part of what we do. Those are the elements that we bring to small businesses in order to get them growing in our shared youth commercial kitchen and then eventually graduating into their own spaces. Whether that be restaurant space, café, a factory space, a production space, maybe a co-packer if they're a package food product.
But our goal is all of our businesses is to have them graduate out of our kitchen and into their own spaces.
Suzy Chase: While doing my research, I learned the term low income entrepreneurs. Talk a bit about who they are and the significant barriers to entry in the formal food industry.
Leticia Landa: Low income is something that we really just do. It's based on HUD standards. The sense for us is not just that you don't have a job right now or "I recently lost my job so now I'm low income." But really people who have been systematically left out of the formal economic system and out of opportunities.
The reason why we focus on immigrant communities and communities of color is really because of income disparities in this country. Because of the way that racism and gender play into opportunities for business ownership.
Low income is a federal category and we use that as a nonprofit. It's technical. But really what we're getting at and who our target demographic is is people who have been left out of economic prosperity. Not because they're not talented. Not because they're not incredibly hard workers, but really just because of how our American system is set up.
From the beginning, we've actually worked with an incredibly diverse group of people. I think that that is really reflected in the book.
Suzy Chase: This cookbook has more than 75 global recipes from more than 40 successful alumni of the kitchen incubator. People move here for the American dream, but so often the dream turns into a nightmare when you're up against a low paying job, paying rent and feeding and clothing children.
I feel like La Cocina is reigniting hope and the American dream.
Leticia Landa: Thank you.
It's interesting, that the term American dream. We knew that it was a complicated one because I think that on one had it can be very easily just used to sugarcoat a lot of the inequality and a lot of the actual systemic issues that we have.
But on the other hand for so many of the people in this book, that's why they're here. That's why they're working so hard and want their own business and want to do something for themselves. We do hope that people see both sides of the coin when they read the book and read the stories that they are super impressed by how hardworking and how talented all these chefs are.
Then also angry at the fact that the culinary world doesn't just look more like this already. That it's not a better reflection of our population. That's because of those barriers. Because of lack of access to capital, because of lack of ability to pay for real estate that gets more and more expensive.
So yeah. We hope it's a celebration and we also really hope that it's a call to action.
Suzy Chase: Food lies at the heart of your community and I firmly believe it brings people together. What other cities have been inspired by La Cocina's model?
Leticia Landa: There are so many. I'm actually in Fresno, California right now. We did an event last night with the Clovis Culinary Center, which just is one-year-old. They are building up a commercial kitchen that's going to be a business incubator for food businesses. I think they're already working with almost 15 businesses.
I think that this idea that pooling resources and creating a shared space is a way to get people started exists all over the place. La Cocina's not the first kitchen incubator in the country. There are people that we were inspired by, Ace Nut and Appalachia have been around before La Cocina started.
Now I know that we've also inspired a lot of other people to do this type of work. Specifically we worked with Spice Kitchen in Salt Lake City. They're working through with refugees in Salt Lake City through their business incubator program to have people get started. I think there's incubators in L.A., in New York. I don't think any of them do exactly the same work or in the same way that we do, but it's a lot of people who have taken this idea and who are working on it.
Suzy Chase: Caleb Zigas, the executive director of La Cocina wrote in the introduction, "We hope that in these recipes you find equal parts home and discomfort." Talk a little bit about that.
Leticia Landa: Well, I think that's what I was getting at when we talked about the American dream. La Cocina's an organization that in some ways wishes that it didn't exist.
We work with entrepreneurs who should have access to these resources without us. We just wish that we lived in the kind of world where everyone had access to opportunity where everyone had access to capital.
I recently saw some article in San Francisco to just talking about venture capital. It used to be that only 2% of venture capital went to women. Two.
Suzy Chase: That's crazy.
Leticia Landa: Now it's three.
Suzy Chase: Oh, wow.
Leticia Landa: It went up. But three. Three percent of venture capital goes to women on businesses. It's just insane. That's not the world that we want to be living in. That's not the way that things should be.
I think that that's the discomfort. Our organization exists because there's inequality in the world because there's racism in the world because there's classism, because people aren't treated equally depending on their gender. Those are the things that we hope people realize and that we want to change.
That's that piece about a call to action and what we hope people get from the book, which is to feel so excited that all of these entrepreneurs exist and to know that they're here. That they're making incredible food for all of us and showcasing their talents and showcasing their passions.
But also that this is what we think that the culinary world should look like. That with great opportunity would come a world that looked pretty different from what it does today.
Suzy Chase: How do the contributors choose the recipes to be included in the cookbook? Did you have guidelines like ingredient or category?
Leticia Landa: No, actually. I think that what's pretty special about this cookbook is that often times a cookbook is one chef repertoire and you get a few amazing recipes. But we asked each of our chefs to pick their most amazing recipes. So this is really a collection of all of those really ... the best of, I guess. They picked the recipes that they thought either represented their business the best or were the ones that they felt most connected to or that they thought people would love the best.
We really wanted to have people pick what they thought would be great and then to share those with Yewande who was our recipe tester. She did such an incredible job of pulling together all of these recipes. Which some were for 20 and some were for 10. Some were written in cups and some were written in weights and pulling them all into the book in a way that would make sense for a home cook.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about a couple of the people featured in the cookbook.
First, I was drawn to Dionne Knox of Zella's Soulful Kitchen. She joined La Cocina in July 2006. She's from west Oakland where 60% of the residents make less than $30,000 a year along with the redlining almost a quarter of the population has lived in poverty for five decades. That's crazy.
You read that statistic and then you look over at the photo of Dionne's incredible smile. Hope just radiates off the page. Give us an overview of how a community like this becomes a food desert and how Zella's Soulful Kitchen fills the gap.
Leticia Landa: Food deserts are the result of centuries, I think. Certainly decades of neglect and of policies ... Of federal and local policies that created areas. They're not exclusive to urban areas. They're not exclusive to California. These exist all over where there's not access to fresh food. There's not grocery store that sells produce. There's really just corner stores or gas stations.
Dionne is in west Oakland because of an organization called Mandela. It's a nonprofit organization that works to try to again, correct some of these injustices by providing small businesses with opportunities to rent space that's subsidized. Then also to really think about the food that they're bringing to that community.
There's a cooperative grocery store called Mandela Food Cooperative, which is locally owned by members of the community. It's a grocery store that sells beautiful produce, a lot of bulk ingredients, so accessible price-wise. They were looking for someone to operate a little café space that they had in the grocery store.
Dionne, I think, was a natural choice. She's actually from east Oakland, but she knows the community well and had worked for a long time with youth in the community just make serving her incredible food and wanted to find a space where she could provide that to the community that she worked in. That was how those stars came together many years ago and why she ended up in that location.
Suzy Chase: When running a restaurant or any food business, recipes matter. Guadalupe Moreno who joined La Cocina in February 2015 is interesting because she had her recipes already written down. What is her story and then chat a bit about the training process used in the commercial kitchen.
Leticia Landa: Guadalupe Moreno is actually the sister-in-law of Veronica Salazar who is the owner of El Huarache Loco. Guadalupe had worked with veronica in her restaurant for years and years. Both at the farmer's market and then also at her brick and mortar restaurants based in Morin.
She had watched someone go through La Cocina's incubator program. She had been working in the food industry for a long time. Then really thought, "I could do this myself, too." Veronica really encouraged her to, "Yeah. Do it. Do it for yourself. It's challenging, but you have great recipes. You have a lot of drive. You know how to do it because you've been doing it for so long."
When Guadalupe entered the program I feel like she had a leg up because she'd already been connected to us for so long. That actually has happened a couple of times.
Our other Guadalupe, Lupe Guerrero who's the owner of El Pipila. She used to work with Alicia from Alicia's Tamales. You'll see some of those connections in the book. Those are the way that I think people hear about our program is often through word of mouth.
Guadalupe had really thought a lot about her business before she applied and before she began in the program.
What we do when people start the program, they apply with a business plan. They apply with a sense and a vision for what they want to do. But we spend the first six months in what we call pre-incubation. Our goal there is to really make that business plan into something that's a little bit more real.
You have your idea of what your target market is going to be. But then as we do our marketing curriculum people are connected to graphic designers who actually make their logo, they print business cards, they get all those social media handles and start a website. You really build up all the foundational things that you need to get a business launched.
When we do our product curriculum which is in the kitchen, a big piece of that is actually to get people to go from, "Oh, it's a handful of this and a scoopful of that." Really be like, "Well, actually you're not going to always be the person who's making this. As your business grows and is more successful, you're going to have employees who have to make it taste like you make it taste. In order to do that you have to have recipes. They have to be written down by weight."
We force people like us to really think about their recipes as formulas, as things that can be duplicated if you're having a big catering job and you need to make more of it. Something that you can easily handoff to someone else so that they can cook it. I think one of the things that people are sometimes surprised by when they enter our program is that most people go into thinking about a food business wanting to cook.
But actually when you're running a food business you very quickly stop cooking and you hire other people who do the cooking so that you can be out and connecting with your customers and doing sales. That's that first couple months of pre-incubation is where we're really working with people to get themselves to feel like business owners, to feel like they're understanding their accounting. They have all the permits and licenses that they need. They have access to attorneys if they want to start an LLC or as they think about becoming employers. That's the transition that happens during pre-incubation and recipes are part of that transition.
Suzy Chase: Now for my segment called my last meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Leticia Landa: That's such a great question. My family's from Mexico City. For me the Mexican recipes that are in the book are what feel the most like home to me. I think I'd product do something like Isabelle's Albondigas. Make some rice. Have some avocado. Just something that I grew up eating at my grandparent's house, that my makes often and it's really comforting. That's one of the recipes that feels like home to me.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find La Cocina on the web and social media?
Leticia Landa: La Cocina's website is www.LaCocinaSF.org. You can get connected to our entrepreneurs through there. We are active on social media, Instagram, and Facebook. It's La CocinaSF as well.
Suzy Chase: It's L-A-C-O-C-I-N-A.
Leticia Landa: Exactly. Then SF like San Francisco.
Suzy Chase: Awesome. With this cookbook, our kitchen will smell like we've traveled around the world. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Leticia Landa: Of course. Thank you so much for having me and we're really excited for people to cook these recipes and to feel connected to the entrepreneurs in our program and then also to really feel connected to all the incredible entrepreneurs in their community and the kinds of businesses that they're surrounded by and hopefully see their culinary world a little definitely, so thank you.
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