Many gifted cooks, encouraged by the praise of enthusiastic and well-fed family members, dream of starting their own restaurants. But between purchasing food, renting a commercial space, paying fees for licensing, decorating the interior, paying the waitstaff, and the countless other expenses associated with opening an eatery, it’s an understatement to say that being a restauranteur is expensive.
And for low-income people, the costs associated with getting into the food business can be prohibitive. That’s why there are now about 150 kitchen incubators across the country,” according to Melissa Pandika of Ozy Magazine.
These kitchen incubators help low-income people share their culinary gifts and navigate the complex laws and paperwork required to sell food to the public. They work much like business incubators for entrepreneurs — providing workspace, support, and mentorship to participants.
One successful kitchen incubator is La Cocina, located in the Mission District of San Francisco. La Cocina’s executive director Caleb Zigas noticed that many immigrant and low-income women were running food businesses illegally, whipping up batches of burritos or empanadas at home and selling them on street corners. Why not help them form a legitimate business, he thought, “transitioning from informal to formal,” as the motto on La Cocina’s homepage states.
La Cocina screens prospective low-income restaurateurs to help those most likely to succeed on the basis of solid business plans, enthusiasm, and delicious food. Each year, La Cocina admits 12 new businesses  to begin a six-month training period, followed by a two-to-five-year period of support as the chefs get their businesses up and running. Since La Cocina started in 2005, 15 businesses have successfully launched, including Veronica Salazar’s El Hurache Loco, which employs 19 people and earned $1.2 million its first year.
Zigas told Pandika, “A program like ours really recalibrates the opportunity index. You can say to the people who live in your city, ‘It’s hard but anybody can do it.’ That’s often not true because so many opportunities require wealth and capital. We try to eliminate that.” So the next time you enjoy authentic street tacos, Ethiopian delicacies, or Vietnamese spring rolls, you might have a kitchen incubator to thank.
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