Teaching Immigrant Women with Community Kitchens

A non-profit community kitchen in San Francisco is part of a growing movement to launch small food businesses around the country. Reporter Pauline Bartolone examines La Cocina's focus on poor immigrant women.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya.

A San Francisco non-profit has a novel mission: Delivering ethnic food to the Bay area. La Cocina Community Kitchen is part of a national movement aimed at getting small food businesses off the ground. And as Pauline Bartolone reports, it's one of the only programs specifically targeting immigrant and low-income women.

(Soundbite of kitchen noise)

PAULINE BARTOLONE reporting:

On a weekday afternoon at La Cocina Community Kitchen, Michaela Olavarri is busy making pastries for local cafes. The self-taught baker was up before dawn and won't stop until tomorrow's orders are done. She's in for a long night because lately, business is pouring in.

Ms. MICHAELA OLAVARRI (Baker): I have orders for chocolate chip cookies. Scones I have on order for tomorrow, about four different variety of muffins, four different varieties...

BARTOLONE: Forty-two-year-old Olavarri navigates through the kitchen with energy and enthusiasm. She's surrounded by eight other cooks who swarm around the kitchen in a sort of controlled chaos. But Olavarri stays focused. Each day, she makes 100 breakfast pastries from scratch.

Ms. OLAVARRI: I'm the Latina Martha Stewart. Basically any dessert, I'm the woman.

BARTOLONE: Baking for a living hasn't been easy for Olavarri. After her husband left her and her family in Fairbanks, Alaska, she survived by becoming what she calls a bootleg baker. She sold goods out of her home for several years until she opened a storefront bakery. But when her business endeavors didn't work out, she moved to California. She's been struggling to get off public assistance for years.

Ms. OLAVARRI: My life has not been easy, period. I'm a single mother, seven kids, and baking was my hobby. It's always been a passion. And when I found myself in a difficult situation and figuring out a way to survive, I took that hobby and turned it into my profession. But just getting by. Lack of equipment, lack of this, I could only produce so much.

BARTOLONE: That's exactly one of the problems many low-income people face when starting a food business, says Laurie Mackenzie, program coordinator at La Cocina. She says the project--funded by city grants and private donations--was created to support women like Olavarri.

Ms. LAURIE MACKENZIE (Program Coordinator, La Cocina Community Kitchen): You know, it's really difficult to start a food business and it requires a huge investment, and the rate of failure for food businesses is pretty high. So what we're doing is we're kind of evening the playing field for those folks who don't have the money to make the initial investment in the commercial restaurant equipment and all the other things that you need.

BARTOLONE: On a tour of La Cocina's space in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, Mackenzie points out the kitchen's state-of-the-art equipment.

Ms. MACKENZIE: This is called a tilted braising skillet. It's like a giant pan that you can do up to 30 gallons of stew in or braise...

BARTOLONE: There's also four convection ovens, the gamut of fryers and steamers and a walk-in refrigerator. They're all part of the most important feature of the project, affordable kitchen space. For $15 an hour, the space rents for less than one-third of the market rate.

Ms. MACKENZIE: That's Giselle's(ph) filling for her special cookies, the alfajores.

BARTOLONE: Mackenzie and volunteer mentors make themselves available 24 hours a day to La Cocina's cooks. They teach them everything from business planning to the fine art of croissant dough. Through the program, Michaela Olavarri is finally on her way to self-sufficiency. In just one month, her business, Desserts First, grew from just two clients to nine. To keep up with her rapidly expanding clientele, she hired a couple of employees who are low-income like herself.

Ms. OLAVARRI: People told me that I wouldn't be able to do it because I didn't have a car, I didn't have this, I didn't have that. And then now they just--they don't say anything.

BARTOLONE: For the new year, La Cocina plans to operate at full capacity, housing 20 businesses cooking by day and by night. Some of the bakers have already met their goals. Olavarri and others have cooked up enough business to move into facilities of their own. For NPR News, this is Pauline Bartolone in San Francisco.

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