SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Anyone who has ever worked in or owned a restaurant can tell you it is a tough business. Some estimates claim that about one in five restaurants close within the first year of operation, if you can open your doors for business in the first place. Barriers like high labor costs, capital and expensive real estate can dash a would-be owner’s dreams long before the first meal hits the plate.
Caleb Zigas is changing those odds. The former pastry chef is the executive director of La Cocina.
The San Francisco-based non-profit provides affordable commercial kitchen space to entrepreneurs, especially low-income women of color and other immigrants. Chefs and other restaurant entrepreneurs who get accepted into La Cocina’s three-to-five year program learn how to operate a food service business. Everything is covered, from licensing to marketing, by Zigas and his staff.
So far 70 businesses have gone through La Cocina’s incubator program. Half are still being mentored, and of those who have graduated, 90% are still in business. It’s all part of La Cocina’s goal: making sure everyone who dreams of owning a food business, has a place at the table.
“If somebody has the vision, talent, and determination to bring that product to market, I hope that our organization can assure that they have the best chance of success as possible,” explained Zigas.
La Cocina has seen many successes, like Isabel Caudillo’s family restaurant El Buen Comer. Caudillo used to cook home-style Mexican food for customers out of her apartment. Now the La Cocina graduate whips up carne asada and mole from her very own San Francisco restaurant.
“It’s really joyful that people come and enjoy the food,” said Caudillo. “It’s a great feeling because [I] never imagined [I’d] own a restaurant or be part of this.”
For Zigas, enjoying a nice meal at El Buen Comer is the best reward for all the time he has put into making La Cocina a success. But Zigas says an even bigger goal is to have diners all across the Bay Area sample the food. Everything from fresh Nepalese dumplings to Salvadoran pupusas to golden curry is cooked in the La Cocina kitchen.
La Cocina also puts on a food festival every year in San Francisco to showcase some of its talent. Zigas and his non-profit have received national recognition, with Inc. magazine naming him one of five community organizers making a difference.