Stories / Impact, Awards

2020 Leadership Award Winner Caleb Zigas

Executive Director, La Cocina

Sarah Maiellano

November 30, 2020

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The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They raise awareness of these timely issues by celebrating the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable and sustainable food system. Below, Sarah Maiellano shares the story of 2020 Leadership honoree Caleb Zigas in San Francisco.

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In the 1990s, grass roots economic development organizations in San Francisco began using business planning as a tool to help low-income families to generate income. They found that many women in these communities were selling food to their neighbors on the side, and actually wanted to launch a formal company. Yet after creating a business plan, many of these women stalled due to lack of commercial kitchen space.

Almost two decades later the Women’s Foundation of California created La Cocina—a 4,400 square foot commercial kitchen for exclusive use by low-income entrepreneurs.

Since 2005 the incubator has served about 125 burgeoning businesses—the vast majority of which are owned by women of color and immigrants. “All of the entrepreneurs at La Cocina are incredibly talented and make good food, but still lack opportunity,” says Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s executive director. “La Cocina can translate their skills to a broader marketplace. Instead of making money on the side, they can generate assets for their family and create jobs for their community.”

La Cocina accepts entrepreneurs based on their business plan’s strength, entrepreneurial spirit, product quality, and product viability. Groups of two to eight businesses at a time go through “pre-incubation,” which Zigas describes as a mini-MBA with modules on marketing, operations, and finance. After reaching certain benchmarks, they move onto “incubation,” which comes with market opportunities, access to capital, and developing growth and exit plans.

From the beginning, participants get access to the commercial kitchen, technical assistance, and recipe development. By working in a commercial setting, the businesses are able to meet food safety protocols and sell their food legally.

Fifty-five businesses have graduated from La Cocina, including Alicia Villanueva of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas. When Villanueva’s husband lost his job during the economic recession, she began cooking tamales at night. After dropping her kids off at school in the morning, she would spend the day selling her tamales in Berkeley. She joined La Cocina in 2010, worked on brand and product development, and began selling at festivals and farmers markets. Today Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas operates out of a 7,000 square foot factory, has 18 employees, and, prior to COVID-19, anticipated generating $2 million in sales this year.

“We’re a food organization, but our work is really about economic equity and opportunity,” Zigas says. “We help women move their business from the informal economy to the formal economy.”

Today La Cocina is an independent nonprofit with a $4 million annual budget. The businesses that have graduated generate close to $16 million a year and sustain more than 250 jobs. Last year the organization released a cookbook, We Are La Cocina, featuring 40 of its entrepreneurs and 100 of their recipes.

In the coming months, La Cocina’s biggest project will open: a 7,000 square foot municipal marketplace with seven food vendors in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

“It’s slated to be the first all-women food hall in the country,” Zigas says. “It’s an opportunity to show that there's a viable economic model for food halls that prioritize the needs of working-class residents and support the dreams of low-income entrepreneurs.”

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Learn more about all our 2020 Leadership Award winners.

Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.