Starting a food business begins with a great recipe, but many other ingredients are involved in making it a success: a smart business plan, effective marketing, and smooth operations, to name a few. And as you’re working through these challenges, it helps to surround yourself with people who can lend a helping hand.
That’s exactly what San Francisco’s La Cocina incubator program aims to be. The program helps low-income entrepreneurs make sure they have a handle on all aspects of their businesses, from accounting to hiring to making high-quality food in mass quantities. Most importantly, the program offers a supportive environment and an opportunity to be a part of a community of fellow food entrepreneurs.
We sat down with Carola Mulero, Marketing and Events Coordinator at La Cocina, along with three graduates of the program—Koji Kanematsu and Hiroyuki Adachi of Japanese restaurant Onigilly and Cristina Arantes of artisanal chocolate company Kika’s Treats—to chat about the challenges of running a food business and how programs like La Cocina can help you tackle them.
What are some of the biggest ways that La Cocina was able to help you get your business off the ground?
Koji: Coming in, we already had the product, but at La Cocina, we learned how to market it. The program covers four aspects of running a successful food business: product, marketing, finance, and operations. For the marketing section, someone from Whole Foods’ marketing department helped us figure out the best way to communicate our message to potential customers and taught us how to use social media effectively. When we did product development, we got to test out our ideas with focus groups.
Cristina: One of my favorite things, which is a big part of La Cocina, is being part of a group of people who are on the same track. There’s a lot of camaraderie, and it’s like a big support group. That sense of community and family was very important to me, particularly because I don’t have family in the U.S. I graduated in 2009 from La Cocina and I’m still very much involved.
Another plus is all the resources the program has access to. I have a huge law firm that helps me pro bono, and I wouldn’t have found out about it if it weren’t for the help of La Cocina. The connections with other organizations are very useful. Finally, the fact that the organization gets a lot of PR means a lot of PR for all the businesses that are involved. I’ve been contacted by many people who wanted to learn about La Cocina and then end up wanting to learn about my business, too.
What’s the relationship between the companies in La Cocina’s incubator program? Do the businesses work with each other?
Carola: Our most successful entrepreneurs really get into the community aspect of it. They like being part of the community, and they’re willing to teach others. They’ll say “Oh, I know how to do that—I can teach you.”
Hiroyuki: La Cocina is all about supporting each other. We’re inclined to use products that our friends make. Some of the vendors give us recipes and we carry products or source ingredients from other businesses that were in the program, like drinks from JAMU. We get our fermented ingredients, like nattō, miso, and koji, from Aedan Foods, which is another business from La Cocina’s program. This saves us a lot of time we would otherwise have to spend making the ingredients ourselves. Plus, I’m proud to say, “Hey, my friend makes this product.”
Koji: We also share information, like info about how to get food permits. If we have questions, we can ask another vendor.
Cristina: Some ingredient suppliers require a minimum order and, since we are all small businesses, we’d never reach those minimums on our own, so we’d combine our orders together and place a single one. And we’re always exchanging information about suppliers and packaging, even employees. It’s an ongoing thing.
What advice would you give to someone who’s applying to an incubator program?
Cristina: Even if you have a great product, you’ll still have to learn all the different aspects of running a food business. In the beginning, unless you have a lot of money, you won’t be able to afford to hire an accountant or other specialists to help with all the services you’re going to need—so you’re going to have to do it yourself. La Cocina wants to see that you’re aware of all these other aspects of running a business and that you’ve put together a good business plan in addition to your great product.
Carola: Be ready to work a lot. You know you can cook, and that’s the easy part. But you’ll be cooking for bigger audience and will need to learn everything from scaling your recipes to working on the presentation aspect and the financial skills.
Koji: La Cocina likes unique products and passion—be passionate about your product!
What advice would you have for someone thinking of starting a food business of his or her own?
Carola: Since I work in marketing, that’s what I emphasize. Always do target research about your market and who your competition is in your city. Find out why your business will be special so you can have the competitive advantage.
Hiroyuki: Stop complaining and just work hard!
You can find Kika’s Treats, among other products from La Cocina entrepreneurs, at La Cocina’s kiosk in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Find Onigilly at Onigilly’s brick and mortar location in the Financial District and at a cart at Off the Grid Fort Mason on Friday nights. This year, don’t miss Kika’s Treats and Onigilly at La Cocina’s 5th Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival.