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A Recipe for Success: Equity Is Baked Into La Cocina Municipal Marketplace

A Recipe for Success: Equity Is Baked Into La Cocina Municipal Marketplace

Take 7,000-square-feet of space, add a dash of local art, two dozen community partners, seven incubator kitchens and one cocktail bar. Then sprinkle seven passionate working-class women of color chefs, add a pinch of culturally inspired food, and “voila”—you have La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, San Francisco’s latest culinary community creation served fresh in the heart of the Tenderloin. 

Located at 101 Hyde Street, La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace, led by the Mission-based culinary nonprofit La Cocina, is a food hall that offers multicultural dining experiences and eats from around the world, including Mexico, Senegal, Algeria and Nepal. Each of the Marketplace’s eight vendors has its own cooking station in the center of the food hall, with communal dining spaces lining the perimeter. 

“Walking into the marketplace is like entering an oasis in the middle of a desert, said chef Jay Foster, who is the marketplace’s manager. “This project has been in the works for a long time, and to see it come to life and have all these amazing chefs breath their recipes into this place has been incredible and fun to watch.”

Chef Jay Foster | Photo by Erin Ng

The concept for the marketplace stems from La Cocina’s business incubator program. La Cocina’s incubator program focuses on training and cultivating restaurant entrepreneurs and chefs who seek to formalize and grow their businesses but do not have the financial means to access a commercial kitchen. When that program launched in 2005, chefs initially operated out of a space in the Mission on Folsom, which nonprofits and licensed businesses can still rent for their food prep needs. Now they’ve found a new home at the Municipal Marketplace. 

The Marketplace’s lease at 101 Hyde Street is principally funded by the city and county of San Francisco, which allows La Cocina, and the chefs who occupy its food hall, to operate their food stands there at below-market-rate rents until December 2025. Once the lease expires, the city will break ground on an affordable housing development.

La Cocina Municipal Marketplace’s community and event space | Photo by Erin Ng

Until then, each vendor pays $500 to rent their food hall space from La Cocina, and everyone shares the cost of maintenance. At a cost that’s an order of magnitude less expensive than a typical San Francisco market-rate lease, upstart chefs in the Municipal Marketplace have a fighting chance to operate sustainably. 

“There’s just such a high cost of doing business in San Francisco. I had a pop-up in my neighborhood, but when I looked for long-term real estate, I ran into issues,” said chef Tiffany Carter of “Creole bodega” Boug Cali, a graduate of La Cocina’s incubator program and currently a tenant at La Cocina’s food hall. “A lot of people that normally would be here to support me don’t live there anymore, and the people who live in the area with the real estate aren’t interested in renters like me.” 

Chef Tiffany Carter | Photo by Erin Ng

Carter completed La Cocina’s incubator program alongside six other chefs now operating out of the new marketplace and has a long history with the organization. Since La Cocina’s inception, the organization has incubated over 120 businesses. Prior to COVID, La Cocina also supported the launch of over 30 brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Bay Area which generated $16 million and created over 250 jobs

“There’s so much that goes into crafting a recipe, creating a menu and developing a business,” added chef Foster. “And that’s the beauty of being part of the program at La Cocina because you learn everything it takes to make it happen.”

Dilsa Lugo, who owns the Mexican restaurant Los Cilantros in La Cocina’s new food hall, was one of the first businesses to enroll in La Cocina’s incubator program in 2007. 

“Since day one, I felt like I found a place I trusted, and they had all the tools that I needed to follow my dream,” Lugo told Here/Say. “To have a restaurant in this marketplace for me means that I have an opportunity to bring food to the neighborhood and be part of an amazing experience. It’s an opportunity to sell food, but it’s also an opportunity to create employment.” 

Chef Dilsa Lugo | Photo by Erin Ng

The marketplace’s location in the Tenderloin District is intentional. With 30,000 residents, the neighborhood is known for being one of the most culturally diverse and densely populated in the city yet also struggles with food insecurity.

“The Tenderloin also has a really high percentage of folks living in single room occupancy housing units or SROs,” said Community Partnerships Manager Naomi Maisel. 

“Many of those rooms do not have the ability to cook and/or store much food because living spaces are not built with kitchens,” she said. “So that leads to a lot of folks not having the ability to prepare fresh, healthy food for themselves.”

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La Cocina’s marketplace manager, chef Jay Foster, serves a customer | Photo by Erin Ng

That’s where La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace steps in, providing affordable and nutritionally complete meals. The low operating costs allow the marketplace to offer  options like a $5 plate daily. EBT cards are also accepted by each food vendor. 

“We live in San Francisco, and some people cannot afford the $8 to12 meals,” said Nafy Flatley of Senegalese cuisine company Teranga and one of La Cocina’s tenants. “It’s a very wealthy city, with very wealthy people, but there still are people who are dying from hunger. It’s really hurtful, and that’s something that I always felt like shouldn’t happen in this city. It’s 2021, we shouldn’t have to worry about people going hungry, so when we decided to do the $5 menu, I thought it was a great idea.”  

Chef Nafy Flatley | Photo by Erin Ng

As the city starts to reopen, customers can look forward to dining in the space and programming like cooking demos and social events.

“These are some of our ideas, but nothing is actually on the books yet,” added Maisel. “But I’m working collaboratively with community partners on programming that matches both the values of the community and the marketplace’s entrepreneurs, so stay tuned.” 

La Cocina Municipal Marketplace is open Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with take-out food options available for now. To keep up with the latest on La Cocina, visit their website.

Video by Jesse Rogala.

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