Photo courtesy La Cocina

Despite — and perhaps even in defiance of — the apocalyptic, smoky haze hovering in the air, culinary business incubator La Cocina will go ahead with its highly anticipated Street Food Festival this weekend, and some of the vendors will be donating all of their profits to fire relief.

This year’s festival is of “modest” size, says La Cocina director Caleb Zigas — as many as to 10,000 people could show up at the Potrero Power Station (420 23rd Street) this Sunday to sample the specialties of more than 30 businesses.

Zigas and the rest of the organizers wrestled with the idea of holding a celebratory food event while such a disaster was raging, he said, but ultimately decided that they should do it, and raise what they could to help.

“We positioned this as a celebration of American food, but it’s really heartbreaking for a lot of us to see people losing their homes and the immediate environmental impacts,” Zigas said. “The generosity of spirit in the businesses themselves was enough for us to be like, okay, we need to find a way to make this happen and feel good about it.”

Ten percent of ticket sales at the door will go to a relief fund, and many individual vendors, some of them low-income and not unfamiliar with disaster themselves, will donate some portion of their profits, ranging from 10 to 100 percent.

As always, the street food festival is a massive undertaking — the popular event moved out of La Cocina’s home neighborhood, the Mission District, after 2014 because it had grown too large. But Zigas and the staff found that the crowds could also be too much.

“A lot of people coming to the festival were no longer really connecting to the La Cocina story, or our businesses, so we wanted to intentionally scale it back to focus on narrative storytelling and focus on the reason we had launched it,” Zigas said.

The goal is to give each person enough time to savor the various tastes and learn about the business owners launching their ventures.

One way the incubator is working on doing that is to have food writers and other industry leaders lead small food “tours” of the business at the festival, highlighting those that have grown from very small to very large, or those who are trying new things but haven’t gotten lots of attention in the food scene yet.

This year’s theme is that the food on sale here, though it has roots all over the world, is American.

“American food is these businesses, the products of these businesses, and their migration and interaction,” Zigas said.

To some of the vendors, the event is a chance for a cash boost to take the next big step in their business — securing a food truck, for example. Others do it for the exposure, or just the fun of it. And to some, it’s one of their first experiences with large-scale events..

Rosie Ortiz is Mission District native with Puerto Rican roots who is starting her business Mission Boricua through La Cocina. 

Ortiz, a former case worker and youth mentor who grew up in the Mission but now lives in Richmond, left her job to care for her granddaughter five and a half years ago. She began making empanadas and other Puerto Rican food in her kitchen and offering it through social media — and people were buying.

“After that, people were just like, ‘Hey, I want it for this meeting, I want it for this event,’” Ortiz said.

Now she runs a catering business and is planning for a food truck by next summer. She recently made an appearance at Carnaval in the Mission, and will be back Sunday at the Street Food Festival.

Preparations for Sunday are really ramping up — she’s made about 400 empanadas, 150 rellenos de papa and 100 alcapurrias. As the owner and sole employee of her business, Ortiz has been working since Thursday to make the festival happen.

“My eyes don’t want to see another empanada,” she joked, after finishing up Friday evening and getting ready to make the long commute back to Richmond. 

Still, she called the business opportunity and La Cocina “a blessing.” For her, Sunday will mean a chance to sell out all of her food and, hopefully, to spread some good spirits.

“My goal is to make everybody happy … and that my food satisfies them,” Ortiz said.

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