La Cocina’s Fourth Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival
Last Saturday afternoon, within a week of moving to San Francisco, I found myself floating in a sea of 80,000 food lovers on Folsom Street in the Mission, for the Fourth Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival, presented by La Cocina, a nonprofit incubator kitchen whose mission is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize their businesses with a focus on women of color and immigrant communities.
The Street Food Festival was foodie paradise, with over 80 vendors spread along six blocks, selling small bites for $3 and big bites for $8. And I was wearing a walkie-talkie and a bright turquoise t-shirt that said CAPTAIN on the back, which basically meant I could do whatever I wanted, which was eat everything in sight; hand-pulled garlic bread with burrata from State Bird Provisions—served with a spicy summer tomato giardiniera—I ate two, the best damm cheeseburger from 4505 Meats, lumpia from Hapa SF, sweet potato fries from Liba Falafel, beyond spicy pork ribs from To Hyang, a chicken mole tostada from El Buen Comer, a peanut tofu taco from Azalina’s, sweet potato pie from Yvonne’s Southern Sweets, and a chocolate cupcake from La Luna Cupcakes.
Founded in 2005, and led by executive director Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s vision is that by supporting food entrepreneurs, they will become economically self-sufficient and contribute to a vibrant economy doing what they love. There are currently 33 food businesses in the La Cocina incubator program, and 35 La Cocina businesses were serving at this year’s Street Food Festival. The incubator program serves low-income entrepreneurs, and offers resources including affordable commercial kitchen space, mentoring in key business areas like online marketing and operations, access to farmer’s markets, catering jobs, and wholesale distribution, and other capital opportunities.
I had the opportunity to volunteer at La Cocina for two days leading up to the Street Food Festival, and then welcome hungry (and chilly) guests as they entered the Night Market at Alemany Market last Friday night. The Night Market, a fundraiser for La Cocina, featured dishes from over 20 vendors including empanadas made from scratch by El Sur that rivaled the scores of empanadas I used to eat while living in Buenos Aires, a Russian soup with cured meats and pickles by Anda Piroshki that stopped the Alemany wind and warmed the soul, and Korean braised oxtail with daikon, carrots, dates, and hard boiled egg, by To Hyang, which was so sweet and tender I had to sit down and close my eyes for five seconds.
The day after the Street Food Festival, I volunteered at La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference at SOMArts Cultural Center. The Conference featured panel discussions on female restauranteurs, introducing new ethnic food flavors, how to write effectively about your own food (you better write something really good on the label if you want me to buy your $8 chocolate bar), creating spaces for successful food entrepreneurship, and using technology and social media to grow your food business. Delicious food was served as well, including bagels and gravlax cured to perfection by Sal de Vida Gourmet, honey lemon thyme biscotti from Saint & Olive, bacon and peanut crusted chocolate cake pops by Matt Jennings, and Nepalese chicken and rice cooked by Bini Adiga, owner of Bini’s Kitchen, one of La Cocina’s program participants.
All too often when we talk about food or go to food festivals or read “Tables For Two” in The New Yorker, we only hear about the pecorino and the foie gras and the pork belly and the $100 prix fixe. In San Francisco—where there is no shortage of gourmet restaurants and craft food trucks and pop-ups serving all the delicacies that a foodie could dream of and more—La Cocina is working hard to ensure that celebrating food is about more than enjoying the burrata. It’s important for all of us to remember that food is about building community; food is about bringing diverse groups together, empowering others, increasing access to affordable healthy and delicious food for all, and creating opportunities for low-income entrepreneurs, as they start food businesses and share their inspiring stories through food.
To learn more about La Cocina, or if you are interested in applying for their incubator program, check out lacocinasf.org.