For anyone trying to start a restaurant in San Francisco, the cost of renting a retail space is a barrier. That’s especially true if you happen to be female and an immigrant. By 2019, if all goes as planned, some new food entrepreneurs in the city will have another option. An abandoned post office in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood is becoming a new food hall, the first in the country aimed at new businesses owned by women of color.
“One of the things we had been realizing over the last three or four years was it was becoming increasingly difficult to find mid-level or affordable real estate options for entrepreneurs,” says Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, a nonprofit food incubator.
The nonprofit has kitchen space in San Francisco’s Mission district that the women it works with, who are often immigrants, can use to launch new food businesses as they get mentorship from the organization. Since it started in 2005, 30 restaurants have graduated to their own brick-and-mortar shops in the Bay Area. Nyum Bai, a noodle shop in Oakland run by a Cambodian refugee who went through the program, was recently named one of the best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. El Mesón De Violeta, an empanada shop, is one of five vendors that recently opened on the UC Berkeley campus. Reem Assil, a Palestinian and Syrian-American who opened a bakery in Oakland in 2017, opened a new full-service restaurant there this year.
But others have struggled to find space to run a simple mom-and-pop-style business. Some locations where its graduates have opened–like the Ferry Building, an upscale food hall–are expensive, and don’t have kitchens. “We thought, as an organization, what can we do to change that?” says Zigas. “If the marketplace isn’t offering that but there’s clearly demand for these kinds of businesses, how can we manipulate the marketplace?”
The abandoned post office is now owned by the city, which plans to eventually turn it into affordable housing. But the process of raising money for the project will take a minimum of seven years, and in the meantime, the city wanted to space–in the middle of a neighborhood that struggles with homelessness and poverty–to be active rather than blighted. La Cocina proposed the new food hall, and signed a lease for seven years of very low rent for the 7,000-square-foot space.
La Cocina is still raising some funding needed for the project, but plans to open the food hall in early 2019, using a pro bono design from the architecture firm Perkins and Will. The space will host seven graduates of the program; all are likely to be women. “We’ve had men graduate, but we prioritize women and specifically immigrant women and women of color,” Zigas says. “All of that’s really designed to address what we consider to be the inequity everywhere in the food system around business ownership.” The kitchen will also support community cooking classes, pop-ups, and other events. The food will bring higher-quality, affordable options for meals to low-income residents in a neighborhood filled with convenience stores.
It’s a model that the organization hopes is replicated elsewhere. Food halls are increasingly common–but they tend to be developer-driven projects that don’t significantly lower the cost of entry for entrepreneurs. Zigas says that older projects, like Pike Place Market in Seattle, were set up by cities. “We think that people have kind of stopped doing those projects,” he says. “We would like to show that there’s not only a good reason to do it, but there’s a good model to do it with…and you don’t need to look to people who are just going to target the highest income earners. There’s a lot of working-class residents who need more places to eat.”