When Cristina Avantes moved to San Francisco in 1999, the move was intended to be a change from her everyday life in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
“I came to study fundraising and administration for nonprofits,” she said, from her seat behind a desk covered in magazines and sweets—for market research—in her production kitchen in the Dogpatch.
She soon fell in love with the city’s culinary scene, and began working in the food industry at catering companies, restaurants, and bakeries.
“I had always dreamt of having, not a candy business, but something more like pastries—like a small bakery or a coffee shop,” Avantes, a lifelong baker, said.
Avantes was seven years into her immersion in San Francisco’s food scene when, by way of a friend, she happened upon a newly opened non-profit called La Cocina, which changed the course of her life in the city.
Opened in 2005, La Cocina had been in the works since local economic nonprofits completed a study to find out why women who had created business plans for seemingly profitable businesses in a business planning program at Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, were not launching those businesses.
What the study found was that there was a lack of affordable kitchen space for these small businesses to get started.
With that information, a donated 2,200 square foot kitchen in the Mission, and one million dollars obtained through various fundraisers, La Cocina opened the doors to their kitchen, where through continued fundraising and donations, they are able to provide program participants with affordable commercial kitchen space and the resources needed to start and grow a successful culinary business.
To apply to La Cocina’s kitchen incubator program, you must present business plan and product to a panel of six people usually, staff from La Cocina and business owners, and if they think it is a viable business plan and you meet the requirements to be considered low income—when Avantes was in the program that meant making under $30,000—you will be granted low-cost rent in the commercial kitchen.
Working in a shared kitchen space, no matter how low the rent, is not without its hardships.
“For me it was very challenging because I’m doing chocolates and there’s people frying, there’s people steaming; there’s all kinds of stuff happening in one kitchen,” said Avantes.
Despite that, Avantes credits the existencce of her business to La Cocina.
“When La Cocina opened up it really inspired me, and I got motivated to start my business. So La Cocina was the reason why I started my business. I saw the opportunity I had and I just decided to take the plunge,” she said.
Avantes joined La Cocina in 2006, two years into it she realized that she needed more space for a piece of equipment that she saw as essential for growing her business—a chocolate enrober. A machine whose only purpose is to cover things in chocolate.
She began renting her kitchen space in April 2008, without any equipment besides the chocolate enrober. Avantes then continued to do her baking at La Cocina until December 2009—only coming to her kitchen cover her confections in chocolate.
Today Avantes is the owner of artisanal sweets company, Kika’s Treats, and has a fully functional production space complete with ovens, fridges, storage, and yes—that same chocolate enrober.
She now only visits La Cocina during the occasional drive by on the way to her kitchen or to participate one of the various community events they put on.
When they opened, La Cocina’s mission was to serve mainly low income Latina women, and that was it. They have expanded their vision and now focus primary on women of color and immigrants. Like Claire Keane, who came to the United States from Ireland.
Keane came to the United States to study environmental sciences in 2006. In her spare time she would make sweets for her friends based on traditional Irish recipes that she used to bake as a kid. Deciding she wanted to put all her effort into beginning a food business, she applied to La Cocina in 2006.
She graduated, and now runs Claire’s Squares, where she makes a living selling those same traditional Irish treats that were so popular amongst her friends.
La Cocina now has graduates that are men, women, and non-Latinos.