Culinary program cultivates, propels new food businesses

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Hundreds of chatty, hungry customers lined up outside the doors waiting to get their fix of free red velvet, tres leches, savory cupcake samples and drinks like wine or house-made cocktails. La Luna Cupcakes is the newest business graduating from San Francisco’s La Cocina incubator kitchen program.

La Cocina is designed to work with individuals to launch, grow and formalize businesses by providing connections to resources some have problems accessing. These resources include affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market and capital opportunities.

A health education major at SF State, Arai Buendia helps her mother Elvia direct the marketing and promotion of La Luna, located at Crocker Galleria in San Francisco’s Financial District.

“It has been through the help of (La Cocina) that we are able to open our shop today,” Buendia said.

What is different about La Cocina is its nature to specifically accept applications from women of color and immigrant entrepreneurs.

“Women and immigrants have historically been excluded from the formal food industry, specifically in San Francisco,” said La Cocina Program Coordinator Daniella Sawaya. “La Cocina was conceived as a program to facilitate many of those barriers for these entrepreneurs.

Out of nearly 125 applicants per year, La Cocina accepts about five new business models. Qualified applicants must be low-income entrepreneurs, show evidence of potential to succeed through entrepreneurial skills, and plan to employ a maximum of five employees.

Once accepted, businesses launch into a “pre-incubation” period lasting six months, where they create business models and work with other accepted entrepreneurs. Post-incubation, ranging anywhere from two to five years, is dedicated to sales and growth, according to Sawaya.

Elvia Buendia, owner and head chef of La Luna Cupcakes, is a recipient of the program.

“Elvia makes a great product, had a wonderful vision of the business and demonstrated that she is very passionate about her product and felt strong about her business that she could make this vision a reality,” Sawaya said.

Emigrating from Mexico in 2002 to help and be closer to her family, Buendia began searching for opportunities to access kitchen space and equipment to grow into a commercial business. She was first accepted to the nonprofit organization C.E.O. Women in Oakland, but due to lack of funding the organization was shut down. Fortunately, she was transferred to La Cocina to continue her journey more than three years ago.

“It was much easier for me to get into the La Cocina program because I already had my recipes and developed a business plan,” Buendia said.

Although La Cocina does not receive any profit from any of the graduated businesses, it facilitates potential business relationships with sources of capital that include loans, grants, individual development accounts and crowd sourcing.

Long-term goals for La Luna include expansion and the further establishment of their brand.

“I plan on working (at La Luna) part-time once I graduate,” Arai Buendia said. “I want to see our business succeed, keep promoting our business, and get our brand recognized.”

In addition to the program, La Cocina also offers hands-0n cooking classes and a full-service commercial kitchen space open to the public for hourly rentals. All proceeds from the cooking classes go to commercial kitchen space and technical assistance for low-income entrepreneurs.

La Cocina currently works with 31 businesses in the incubator program and is in the process of interviewing potential new businesses. Other businesses that have participated in this program include Anda Piroshki in Bernal Heights, Love and Hummus, and El Buen Comer.

“We believe, passionately, that everyone deserves the opportunity to make a living doing something they love,” Sawaya said. “And these entrepreneurs also happen to be really, really amazing at what they do.”

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