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One Food Incubator Helps Bring About Tamale Success

By Nicole Wong

When Alicia Villanueva first arrived in the Bay Area in 2000, she dreamed of sharing the cuisine of her native Mexico with the communities in her new home. Having grown up making tamales with her grandmother and mother, she set out to make and sell this familiar comfort food and in the process provide for her husband and three kids. After a day of cleaning houses or caring for the disabled, she would return to her home kitchen in Berkeley and cook tamales at night, sometimes producing more than 500 in a single week. A natural entrepreneur, she boldly went door to door selling her tamales to churches, beauty shops, and body shops. However, after a week of long nights hustling to produce and sell her tamales, she ended up with only $25 left over to pay her bills.

Undiscouraged, Alicia held onto her dream. After seeing a brochure for the Women’s Initiative, a nonprofit that offered a year-long business course for aspiring entrepreneurs, she signed up and commuted to Oakland to learn about how to create a financially viable business. She came out of the course with a formal business plan and the name of a local food business incubator, La Cocina, to look into. After applying to La Cocina’s incubator program with a proposal for a tamale cart, she was accepted in June of 2010. From then on, the real work, and according to Alicia, the “real dream” began.

La Cocina was one of the crucial ingredients early on that helped her business, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, take off. La Cocina is a San Francisco-based nonprofit food business incubator that offers kitchen space, business know-how, and a network to help low-income immigrant women and women of color establish their food businesses. Alicia came in with the guts, gusto, and grit necessary to establish her food business, but La Cocina provided her with key resources to weather the common challenges that face many first-time food entrepreneurs.  

First, the cost to rent commercial kitchen space can be prohibitively high and prevent many female entrepreneurs from getting their businesses off the ground. The hourly market rate to rent kitchen space can be as expensive as $45, and Forage Kitchen, an incubator in Oakland, offers kitchen space at $25/hour for a 40 hour/month commitment. On the other hand, La Cocina offers kitchen space at $13/hour, which rises as entrepreneurs grow their business.  

Beyond offering commercial kitchen space, La Cocina also provides entrepreneurs with business expertise and technical assistance. Alicia explained, “When you want to do a business and you don’t have too much knowledge, you make plans but not really professional plans when you are by yourself... [La Cocina] gives you everything but you have to work hard and follow the advice they give because if not, it’s not possible. [It takes] a lot of work.” All La Cocina clients begin with an intensive 8-month pre-incubation phase where they develop the nuts and bolts of their business. Entrepreneurs receive technical assistance from a group of pro-bono volunteers to guide them through everything from branding to website design. They also learn about the financial and operational sides of running a business, including practical skills like scaling up production, managing permits, and accurately pricing their product.

Furthermore, food incubators like La Cocina offer their entrepreneurs a built-in business community. Following the first eight months of pre-incubation, entrepreneurs like Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas enter into the incubation phase during which La Cocina helps them build market opportunities to place their businesses on the map. This may look like introducing their food at farmer’s markets or joining La Cocina’s extensive catering program. By participating in an incubator program like La Cocina, retail stores are also more likely to make room for entrepreneurs on their shelves.

Not long after Alicia joined La Cocina in 2010, her business made its grand debut at the 2010 San Francisco Street Food Festival where she sold close to 1,500 tamales. The following year, she officially started selling her tamales out of a tamale cart at Justin Herman Plaza in Oakland. She continued to grow her business through sales at large festivals like Outside Lands and catering.

According to La Cocina Communications Director Jessica Mataka, “La Cocina is a stepping stone for businesses.” After a period that typically lasts five years, La Cocina participants graduate from the incubator program to start their own restaurant or produce food in their own facility. It has now been more than a year since Alicia transitioned out of La Cocina to her own 6,000 square foot space in Hayward to join the other 22 La Cocina graduates who also have opened brick and mortar locations. Alicia tells me that it brings her great joy just to drive to her Hayward facility. She now has 16 employees, makes 40,000 tamales/month, manages 10 catering accounts, and sells her tamales at 15 Whole Foods locations.

Perhaps what makes La Cocina so powerful is that it helps entrepreneurs cultivate economic self-sufficiency and create opportunity for others. When Alicia first started making tamales, any profit she made went toward expenses like rent and she was unable to build any savings. Now, her business brings in enough earnings so she can pay 16 staff members, cover her family’s financial needs, and re-invest profit back into her business. She has even begun to save money in the hopes of one day purchasing a house for her family.

Despite her success, it is not lost on Alicia how many people helped make her business what it is today. For instance, Alicia’s husband Pedro oversees deliveries while her son Pedro junior manages the company’s orders and administration. Furthermore, Alicia is grateful to La Cocina for guiding her business through its earliest phases. Although Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas has officially moved out from the La Cocina kitchen, Alicia still feels like she can call on them for help. At age 57, Alicia continues to dream. She hopes to make her tamales accessible across the globe, and, once the business is firmly on its feet, give back to her community.

Photos reprinted with the permission of Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas

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