La Cocina hosted the SF Street Food Fest in October, 2018

Intersectional equity takes center stage in the City’s newest food haven, and community activists hope it will have a lasting impact.

Guests approaching the SF Street Food Fest on a sunny Saturday in mid-October were greeted by smiling volunteers and inspirational signs introducing vendors:

Today, you’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the Bay Area’s most talented food entrepreneurs whose lives, cultures and hard work have actively shaped our food scene and participate in building a more inclusive, equitable and delicious city.

Behind a standard chain-link fence, 55 tents and kiosks were organized on the Potrero Power Station lot. People were already pouring into line, waiting for the gates to swing open. A mostly industrial neighborhood characterized by large warehouses, gray streets and minimal vegetation was suddenly filled with bright-colored booths, and cheerful folks mapping their meals for the day.  

The annual Fest is held by La Cocina, a nonprofit organization that mentors “low income food entrepreneurs” through a business incubator program that provides “affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities”. The event is a showcase celebrating Bay Area food businesses primarily run by women of color and immigrant communities.

This year’s fest also served as a “preview” of what La Cocina’s newest venture, the Municipal Marketplace, will offer. The project has the potential to transform the Tenderloin into a food paradise, with the local community taking the reins.

Without a full-service grocery store close by, and pricey produce at the few mom and pop grocers, residents of the Tenderloin often rely on the smattering of liquor and convenience stores in the neighborhood for their meals. However, La Cocina is looking to transform the residents’ options with their Municipal Marketplace.

In the near future, La Cocina’s incubated entrepreneurs hope to usher in a hyper-local renaissance of food and fidelity. Like the street fair, the marketplace will serve as an inviting space where San Franciscans can go for a nutritious meal and a good time.

Since their inception in 2005, La Cocina has helped kickstart 78 businesses through their incubator program and has set up a kiosk selling La Cocina business products located in the Ferry Building. Participants entering the  program have “ready to start businesses” and are given assistance to eventually open their own places. The organization requires that applicants qualify as low-income, and it prioritizes women of color and immigrant women. About 95% of La Cocina businesses are run by women, and only female-run businesses will set up shop in the Marketplace.

At the ground-breaking ceremony on September 24th, Mayor London Breed announced that the Municipal Marketplace, the first female-led food hall in San Francisco, would find its home at 101 Hyde Street, in the former post office that has been vacant since 2016. The empty building is a symbol of the Tenderloin’s lack of resources, much like the absence of full-service grocery stores. Hoodline reports that the post office closure was a disappointment to residents who had been fighting for a safe, full-service post office for years, only to be met with an unfulfilled promise by USPS that the site would be converted to a full-service facility in 2008. Ultimately the site closed due to complaints of deteriorating conditions and heightened safety concerns.

101 Hyde St. is slated to become affordable housing—eventually. Much like The Hall, a now-closed community space and food hall on Market Street, La Cocina was chosen to hold the space under a 7-year lease from the City at “below market rate” to temporarily hold the space until it was ready to begin building housing. Originally in 2016, real estate development firm Shorenstein  acquired the building and then transferred it to the Mayor’s Office of Housing to select a non-profit developer to use the space while they make plans for 87 permanently affordable housing units.

At the time, some skeptics saw this as a bid from Shorenstein, a recognizable name in San Francisco real estate, to make up for the contested residential development at 1066 Market Street. Although Shorenstein did technically meet the legal requirement of 12% below-market-rate units. Shorenstein projects the apartments will be completed in 2020, adding to the “housing boom” of the Mid-Market neighborhood.

However, La Cocina is committed to revitalizing 101 Hyde St. and enhancing life for Tenderloin residents. Eater San Francisco describes plans for the 7,000 square foot space including stalls for 7 La Cocina graduates, a 1,000 square feet commissary kitchen, a walk-in refrigerator, and dish room. The redesign has been offered pro bono to La Cocina by architects Perkins + Will and LMNOP Design. In addition to La Cocina businesses, the marketplace will engage the Tenderloin through cooking classes, pop ups and other events to stimulate and support the neighborhood.


Courtesy: La Cocina

Linda Esposito, Director, Municipal Marketplace Management, explained that the space would be treated essentially as a “social enterprise,” using the revenue from the space to benefit the vendors and community members and expand the programs. In her vision:

The Marketplace is going to a vibrant space for both the neighborhood residents and the general public. The kiosks and commercial kitchen takes up about 25% of square footage. The remaining spaces are dining areas, and we are designing it to be flexible for community program activations....examples include community dinners, CSA pick up hubs, nutrition talks, cooking classes and programs for children and seniors.  We plan to be working with neighborhood organizations such as 826 Valencia, St Anthony's, or Curry, to name a few.

Esposito plans to keep the site’s bathrooms open, safe and clean for community use. She is also hoping to add a piano for residents since, “After all, the Tenderloin's history is steeped in music”.

Catering to the community is at the forefront of concerns. Describing the ideal La Cocina candidates to set up shop in the new Marketplace, Esposito emphasizes a connection to the neighborhood or a business that “resonates with the cultural fabric” of the community. The candidates will have already gone through the incubator program and must demonstrate and interest in community-building and have affordable, healthy options that cater to the Tenderloin’s diverse residents. La Cocina is also working with the City’s Human Services Agency to accept EBT at the different stalls.

Hiring will take place closer to the opening date, which Esposito estimates to be in Summer 2019 due to “new requirements in the permit review process”. A projected 30-40 jobs will be introduced and Tenderloin residents will have a chance to join the team. La Cocina “aim[s] to hire 75% from the neighborhood.”

Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, believes the Marketplace will help bolster Tenderloin community. Shaw stated that the Marketplace will “[replace] a corner long dominated by drug dealers…[and] will become a neighborhood gathering spot from morning until night.” Beside providing a space for more wholesome activities, Shaw celebrated 101 Hyde as a site for affordable nutrition and economic opportunity. He imagines La Cocina’s project “will be a tremendous asset not only for the Tenderloin but for all of San Francisco”.

However, La Cocina is still raising the remaining funds needed to complete this project. The project is estimated at $5 million total which includes programming needs for the first year. The City of San Francisco has pledged $1.5 million in support for construction and Jane Kim’s Office has pledged $100,000. Esposito mentioned La Cocina was “recently awarded a federal grant for Community Economic Development from the Dept of Health & Human Services”. According to Esposito, La Cocina has raised over 80% of their goal with the help of the City, grants, institutional and individual donations at the time of this writing.

While La Cocina is optimistic about moving forward in the project after raising the remaining funds, the future of the Marketplace is uncertain. Jessica Mataka, La Cocina’s Development and Communications Manager, explained the uncertainty looming over the project after the 7-year lease is up.

While there is no guarantee that the Marketplace will be incorporated into the new housing structure once the lease is up, Mataka and others speculated that this would be an ideal outcome. She acknowledged, however that the housing project takes precedence: “Obviously, there is a pressing need for affordable housing in our community and we would like to see the development begin as soon as possible,” she said.

Mataka’s vision is for La Cocina incorporated into the complex in order to continue to offer both resources for incubator program participants, but also to retain the strong community ties they hope to cultivate in those 7 years.

If the Marketplace does not join the new housing development, Mataka says La Cocina will still continue to support their vendors.She references the support given to La Cocina affiliate El Pípila, which was previously part of The Hall. La Cocina has been building relationships with Equity Residential to secure commercial space for their businesses and the owner of  El Pípila, Guadalupe Guerrero, moved her business from The Hall into a ground floor retail space at 855 Brannan with their assistance.

“The Marketplace may also be a launching off point for some businesses to continue to their growth into an even bigger operation in their independent restaurants or cafes. We will continue to work closely with each business to identify commercial spaces that match their aspirations and goals,” Mataka adds.

La Cocina aims to replicate this model using the Marketplace’s revenue elsewhere in the city. Esposito and Mataka stressed the need for programs that directly impact underserved people in urban areas.

“The bigger picture is that we hope the Marketplace project becomes a model of economic development not just in the Tenderloin, but for the city, state and nation,” Esposito declared. “We hope to bring this model to any city that wants to alleviate poverty and achieve economic justice.” 

La Cocina also holds regular hands-on cooking workshops open to the public, such as the upcoming 2018 Holiday Tamalada on December 1st, where you can learn to make your own tamales.

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