In honor of this year’s International Women’s Day, culinary incubator ‘La Cocina’ hosted a weeklong series of gourmet dinners crafted and served by beloved Bay Area restaurateurs, winemakers, and mixologists. From March 3-9, La Cocina joined forces with 14 guest chefs and 14 La Cocina-affiliated chefs to celebrate women leaders in the culinary industry for a “A Week of Women in Food.”
For its seventh and last stop, the event touched down at the Public Market Emeryville. Taking the lead were Emeryville’s very own Minnie Bell’s, headed by 2017 SF Chronicle Rising Star Chef Fernay McPherson, and mac & cheese wizardess Erin Wade of Homeroom in North Oakland.
Since 2005, La Cocina has been providing resources and support for women and POC food entrepreneurs as they incubate their culinary ideas for the public. The SF-based nonprofit’s mission is to provide for economically disadvantaged food entrepreneurs – particularly those from communities of color and immigrant communities – who face the highest barriers in entering the industry.
Created by Arriba Juntos, The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, and The Women’s Foundation of California, La Cocina acknowledges how being excluded from good jobs in the mainstream market has prompted many low-income women to start their own, informal food enterprises. For these individuals, business ownership opportunities are especially crucial in their pursuit of economic freedom.
Churning out talented restaurateurs begins with La Cocina’s incubator program, which looks at income levels, product viability, the ability to cultivate both an entrepreneurial and community spirit, as well as readiness for their business to become reality.
For six months, La Cocina program participants receive foundational and technical training in marketing, finance, and operations. Those who earn their stripes gain access to resources including affordable commercial kitchen space and further technical assistance.
La Cocina’s 2018 Impact Report, titled “In Pursuit of Economic Freedom report released 2018 figures for their Incubator Program:
- 40 total businesses incubated
- 10 new businesses opened
- 64 full-time jobs and 45 part-time jobs
- $4.2 million in sales
Those who have graduated from the Incubator Program, including McPherson, have collectively produced $11.9 million in sales and provided jobs for 152 full-time employees according to their data.
“That is the power of women in food. This is what happens when we collectively say, ‘Yes to equity, opportunity, and a world where leadership is mixed and all sorts of people get a turn behind the wheel.’”
Minnie Bell’s McPherson Seizes Opportunity to Pursue Dream
Relocating from Texas during the Great Migration, McPherson’s family was one of six million families who moved from the rural south to urban spots in the North, Midwest, and the West.
They settled down in SF’s Fillmore District, where McPherson was born and raised. There, she learned soul food from the best: her family. As she kindled a presence in her family’s kitchen, so did her love for cooking.
“My passion for cooking has been since I was a little girl, but I worked so many jobs before I followed that passion,” said McPherson. “I probably worked for 20 years before I said, ‘Let me follow my passion.’”
Determined to embark on this path, she enrolled and studied at the Kitchen Academy Culinary School in Sacramento in 2007. It was after graduation that McPherson became involved with La Cocina. She joined La Cocina’s incubator program in 2011 and graduated two years later.
“Naming my business after them was my way of bringing them on this journey with me,” said McPherson.
The name ‘Minnie Bell’s’, serves as loving embrace to the women who influenced McPherson – her great-aunt Minnie and grandmother Lillie Bell. “Naming my business after them was my way of bringing them on this journey with me,” said McPherson.
This led to her first pop-up tasting event, which was almost seven years ago for SF FoodLab. There she served her signature mac & cheese, sautéed collard greens, and sweet cornbread muffins with whipped vanilla butter.
McPherson’s journey with La Cocina eventually led her across the Bay Bridge to the East Bay. “My journey across the bay was because of a lack of opportunities in San Francisco,” she recalled. “Just entering this culinary world wasn’t easy for me. I’ll always say that the first person that gave me my opportunity was another woman of color.”
That woman was Executive Chef Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen. McPherson joined Holland’s team in her Oakland restaurant as an extern and gained valuable restaurateur experience.
Public Market’s Involvement helps groom Women Entrepreneurs
In 2016, Emeryville’s Public Market had recently completed major renovations of the Food Hall and was scouting extensively for new, exciting chef-owned food concepts. Leadership at the Public Market became aware of La Cocina’s mission and the value it created within their communities.
They quickly forged a partnership with them by building out a turnkey stall designated for graduates of La Cocina’s program. The first tenant of the stall was Chef Nite Yun and Nyum Bai who opened in February, 2017. To say this decision was a success would be an understatement as Nite’s Fruitvale restaurant went on to be named a best restaurant of 2018 by Bon Appetite.
Fernay and Minnie Bell’s followed in Yun’s footsteps with a ten-month lease in March, 2018. She picked up where Nyum Bai left off and quickly built her own following.
Fans of Minnie Bell’s will be ecstatic to learn that she is finalizing a long-term lease on another stall within the Public Market. Still, McPherson hasn’t lost sight of her original dream. “That journey to return back to Fillmore or San Francisco is not gone; we’re still going to pursue that journey,” she said.
Homeroom’s Erin Wade
Homeroom, who just celebrated their nine-year anniversary, was founded by former lawyer-turned-chef Erin Wade. Wade left her lucrative profession to pursue a dream of bringing joy and happiness to people. This also meant carving out a spot where her staff would want to come to work.
“It’s crazy to me that when you talk to people about their formative food experiences, it usually has to do with women – a mother or a grandmother – making food,” said Wade. “But when it comes to money-making food, you start seeing a lot less women.”
Wade aims to do her part in helping move equity forward by providing platforms for women and people of color to step into leadership roles. Currently, 70% of Homeroom’s leadership team are women and people of color. “We want to see more women out there being badass leaders in the food world,” Wade asserted.
Homeroom continues to support La Cocina’s mission by donating a portion of sales through their “Give Back” Seasonal mac dishes.
“It’s crazy to me that when you talk to people about their formative food experiences, it usually has to do with women – a mother or a grandmother – making food.” —Homeroom’s Erin Wade.
La Cocina Program Manager Emiliana Puyana
La Cocina Program Manager Emiliana Puyana shared the reality that all working women face in this country: for every $1.00 a man makes, women still earn roughly $0.80. Black women, however, earn $0.58 and Latina women the least at just $0.53.
“In other words, there is work to do. For some, it will be a life mission. We need people who are willing to vote with their dollar, willing to put money where their mouth is to support the kinds of businesses that represent the sort of diversity that we wish to see in our community.”
Although the industry she loves has its disappointments, Puyana believes that communities can, and should, build a better one; one that is more inclusive, that can be a pillar of community, a place of refuge, and a place of love.
“La Cocina business owners are fearlessly and unapologetically breaking barriers and shattering the glass ceiling,” — La Cocina Program Manager Emiliana Puyana.
“La Cocina business owners are fearlessly and unapologetically breaking barriers and shattering the glass ceiling,” Puyana proclaimed. “La Cocina runs and operates 30 brick-and-mortars around the Bay Area, reshaping our culinary and cultural landscape.”
La Cocina has announced plans to open La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, the country’s first women-led food hall, in SF’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The Marketplace will provide affordable commercial space to seven women, immigrant, and POC-owned businesses.
“That is the power of women in food,” said Puyana. “This is what happens when we collectively say, “Yes to equity, opportunity, a world where leadership is mixed and all sorts of people get a turn behind the wheel.”
City Center Realty Partners President and Co-Founder City Mark Stefan remains inspired by La Cocina’s visionary mission and continues to be impressed with the talent graduating from their program. “For our part, we’re happy to play a small role in helping these women overcome obstacles and really reach their potential and thrive,” Stefan said. According to Stefan, the vast majority of the businesses at Public Market are either owned or co-owned by people of color and/or women. He hinted that the Public Market will release exciting news soon regarding Minnie Bell’s and possibly another La Cocina business.
“For our part, we’re happy to play a small role in helping these women overcome obstacles and really reach their potential and thrive” — CCRP President Mark Stefan
“Women, immigrants, and people of color are at the heart of the Bay Area story,” Stefan stated. “That diverse population, made up of people who have confronted and overcome adversity, is a big part of why our region is innovative and creative.”
On March 19, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement will add a one-year anniversary at the Public Market to their books. What makes March truly special is that Fernay’s great-aunt Minnie celebrated her 87th birthday.
“I come from a family of strong women,” shared McPherson. “For me to be here, getting ready to celebrate my one year and for my auntie to still be here is huge for me. “I didn’t foresee my journey into this culinary world,” she continued. “I’m here now and I see it. Whatever your passion may be, and whatever you enjoy doing, you can do it. There’s no such thing as ‘It doesn’t make sense.’”
Feature Image: Erin Wade, Fernay McPherson and La Cocina Program Manager Emiliana Puyana (All Photos: Amy Tam Photography).