The food-industry incubator knows that it takes more than kitchen space to build a business.
When Hang Truong's husband passed away two years after she moved to San Francisco, she suddenly found herself in need of a way to support herself and her young daughter in the most expensive city in America. As a Vietnamese immigrant with some culinary training, Truong thought she might start a restaurant. But she was scared: “I didn’t grow up here, so there’s a lot I don’t know [about business], plus there’s the language barrier.” She worried that they would have to move.
After spending a year and a half at La Cocina, a culinary incubator that provides low-income immigrant women and women of color in the Bay Area with the educational, financial, and marketing support to launch their own businesses, things looked very different for Truong. In 2017, she launched Noodle Girl, a Vietnamese noodle soup shop that draws enthusiastic lunchtime crowds at La Cocina’s five-shop cantina on UC Berkeley’s campus.
Truong is one of many women who have partnered with La Cocina to open brick-and-mortar spaces. Its graduate roster reads like a who’s who of culinary innovators, including 2019 F&W Best New Chef Nite Yun; Reem Assil, of 2018 F&W Restaurant of the Year Reem’s; and Heena Patel, of beloved Gujarati spot Besharam. In 2018 alone, 22 La Cocina graduate–owned businesses created 152 full-time jobs in the Bay Area. It also supports retail concepts: Last year, several incubator-backed stores opened, like Crisps & Crackles, a vegetable chip company; and Oyna Natural Foods, which specializes in kuku, a Persian frittata.
The organization’s main goal is to empower women toward entrepreneurship, and it also helps participants like Kitty Ditpare, who joined La Cocina over a year ago, plan for the future. Ditpare launched TacoThai, a Thai-influenced taco concept, and hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location in the Bay Area with La Cocina’s support. It’s impossible to ignore the value of having access to a fully equipped commercial kitchen, but it’s ultimately the honest advice that graduates receive years after they leave the program that proves priceless.
As for Truong? She’s looking ahead to what’s next for her business. “We’re very busy in Berkeley, and I want to open in San Francisco,” she says. “Without La Cocina, I just wouldn’t have had the nerve to push myself.”