Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen sorts noodles at La Cocina. Photo by Heather Smith.

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It’s morning at La Cocina. Fresh ramen is being sorted into 5-ounce bundles. A man is peeling yucca with what looks like a bowie knife. Broth filled with floating pork and chicken bones is bubbling away in an enormous stew pot. Caramel is heating in an electric cauldron that looks like the love child of R2D2 and Sputnik.

La Cocina is a novel experiment. Recently the nonprofit has been caught up in the Dolores Park back-and-forth over food carts — the permits awarded to it and Blue Bottle Coffee have been put on hold until the Recreation and Park Department figures out if there was enough outreach — but its main business is mentoring in the nuts and bolts of running a food business: inventory, food prices, building relationships with clients, scaling up to meet demand. There are field trips to places like Straus Dairy and Frog Hollow Farm. There are happy hours. And, most alluringly, there is deeply discounted commercial kitchen space — often the largest financial hurdle when a business goes legit. About 10 of La Cocina’s tenants pay market rate, providing a source of funding for the nonprofit.

La Cocina is situated in the Mission because even five years ago the neighborhood was the hub of an informal food economy — one helmed by women who sold food in front of churches, at BART stops and late at night at hipster bars. Since then, it has become something else. La Cocina is its own brand.

A few tenants have “graduated” from the program and moved to larger commercial spaces: Kika’s TreatsPeas of MindShi Gourmet. But space is limited — it’s a small kitchen, in a small building, and storage space is so small that many tenants rent additional food storage off-site. Last quarter, the incubator program had only two open spaces for applicants. The application period for the next quarter is coming up, and the number of available spaces will depend on how many manage to graduate from the program this fall.

About 50 people showed up for the last orientation meeting. Nine ultimately applied. Of those, four are being interviewed. The application process is intensive. There’s the business plan — most of the newly admitted have already developed one through the Women’s Initiative or Rennaissance Center programs. There’s making sure that the applicant’s product doesn’t directly compete with a product made by another student or former student. Two people selling pupusas = verboten. One person selling pupusas and one selling huaraches = permissable.

And then, finally, there’s the food audition. Sometimes, says Julie Flynn, who does retail and public relations work for the nonprofit, “We’ll tell them to maybe go work on their recipe.”

In early September La Cocina is having a slow day: The double-header of the SF Street Food Festival and the Eat Real Festival has just finished. Both events stretched the capacities of the kitchen to the breaking point. “It really just comes down to scheduling,” Flynn. “If you schedule to use the oven from 12 to 3 because you are baking muffins, are you really baking muffins for three hours? No. You’re making the batter, you’re putting the muffins into the muffin tins. We just have to be very creative.”

The events were hard on the tenants, too. “We worked a few 16-hour days, didn’t we?” says Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen to Victor Alvarado.

Alvarado doesn’t look up from the enormous pile of garlic he’s peeling. “Yeah,” he says after a minute.

Nakano, one of the space’s market-rate tenants, quit a gig as the sous chef at Nopa to start a ramen cart. Things are a little tense today — he just began subcontracting out the noodle production and a few days ago had to send back 200 pounds of them because they were cut the wrong way. They still aren’t perfect.

“The food business is risky. But it’s worth the risk. And the only risk, really, is that I left a well-paying gig. With a newborn baby.” He pulls out his iPhone and plays a video of a baby. It is laughing gleefully, with the openheartedness that humans only have before they acquire knowledge of things like botched noodle orders.

“Susanna,” he says to the woman weighing out noodles nearby. “Don’t go.”

Susanna Ok has been volunteering at La Cocina this summer. She’s one of the tribe of global foodies who increasingly pass through the Mission on their voyages of culinary self-discovery. She is, as she puts it, “looking for something in food somewhere in the world that fits me.” Nothing will dissuade her from moving on. She leaves for the east coast in a few days, followed by (in uncertain order) Italy, Spain, Oman, Turkey and Panama.

Claire Keane, of Clairesquares, is also weary. “I made 3,000 squares,” she says. “Then I stayed up all night making costumes out of painted cardboard. They were for two people who dressed as chocolate caramel squares. I stayed up way too late. The chocolate part of the costume was brown velvet fur.”

Keane came to the United States from Ireland to work as an environmental scientist. “Back then, Ireland wasn’t quite ready for…the environment yet,” she says, delicately. And so she drilled soil, tested groundwater and moved her way up into writing reports. Lots of reports. She left it all behind to make a business out of the caramel and chocolate shortbread recipe that she’d been making since she was a kid because, as she puts it, “I always wanted to be my own boss.”

Claire Keane, costumed assistants and police officer at the SF Street Food Festival.

Before the electric kettle showed up and septupled her output, Keane hand-stirred her own caramel for two years. La Cocina was there when, a few months after she started, she was written up in a local food blog and was suddenly faced with an order for 3,000 squares and no idea how to make them all quickly enough. She has a few employees now — some are pastry students from City College, one is a fellow La Cocina member who makes flavored peanuts.

Maria del Carmen Flores was one of the original applicants accepted into the program. She’s the embodiment of a certain kind of Mission immigrant entrepreneur: When she wasn’t cleaning houses, watching people’s children, watching people’s elderly relatives, cooking in an Italian restaurant, making traditional handcrafted Oaxacan dolls or selling Mary Kay products, she was selling plantain chips, yucca chips, pupusas and whatever else she could make in her kitchen. “People tell me they can’t find a job,” she says. “But there is a job. You can sell anything.”

Startup costs for her then-underground food business (which she named Estrellita’s Snacks, after her daughter) consisted of $20, which she spent on 10 pounds of plantains. She sold at the BART stops, all over the Mission, and in local casinos. (“There you have to be careful,” she says. “Just walk up to people and show them what’s in your bag.”) The best spot to sell plantain chips, she says, was in front of the Bank of El Salvador. “If I saw the police, I would just tell them that I was just taking these gift bags of plantain chips to a party.” And when the bank’s manager came out to ask if she knew that what she was doing was illegal, she would say, “It’s not illegal to eat.”

Flores will officially leave the incubator program in December, something which she does not appear to be especially thrilled about. She sells her chips in about 50 grocery stores around the area, but doesn’t feel quite ready to go. “They ask us what they can do to help us. And I say, ‘You can help me. I still need help.’”

“There is a time when we begin to start pushing graduation a little heavier,” says Flynn, adding that Flores is welcome to stay on at La Cocina as long she starts paying commercial rates.

It could be argued that training people to work in the food industry — a business with notoriously long hours and small profit margins — is not the best way to help them earn a living. But before Flores sold food full-time, she took care of other people’s children. She hated it. “I had seven children already. I’m traumatized.”

A life of uncertain plantain-based income is the best life she’s known. “I’m an artist,” she says, emphatically. “But with food.”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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