By Katie Morell
Growing up in Mumbai, Heena Patel knew she wanted to be a chef. “We’d have big gatherings all the time and I would calculate recipes in my mind for how I would feed 500 people, instead of 100,” she remembers.
While she spent the school year in Mumbai (often eating street food), Patel would return to the nearby state of Gujarat and experience a totally different cuisine on her family’s farm. Adulthood brought with it marriage and a move to London, then to San Francisco, then business ownership with her husband, Paresh. The couple ran a liquor and adjoining flower shop in San Rafael until 2013.
“Then, I knew, it was my time,” Patel says. “I wanted to run a food business, and combine the flavors from every place I’d lived, putting a twist on authentic Indian dishes.”
The problem? The Patels, who live in Vallejo, had no idea where to start. When a friend suggested La Cocina, a San Francisco-based nonprofit incubator kitchen designed to help primarily female, immigrant food entrepreneurs make a go at their businesses, Patel jumped at the opportunity.
Competition was fierce. She attended an orientation, crafted a business plan and was chosen to join a cohort with four other applicants, among dozens. Within a few months, Rasoi was born—a business specializing in “elevated Indian street food,” Patel explains, while animatedly chatting in a conference room at La Cocina’s Mission location, a floor above the commercial kitchen where she works.
She walks downstairs to where Paresh and three employees are busy making food. Her workspace takes up two rectangular, steel tables and has an assortment of pots and ingredients on top, ready for cooking. “Today we are making date chutney,” she says, then walking to the nearby stove, “and we are boiling the dates first.”
Working at La Cocina is a full-time job for Patel and her husband. Thanks to four years of dedication, Rasoi can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, at pop-up locations like Neighbor’s Corner and online through sites like Feastly and EatWith. “We also do quite a bit of catering,” notes Patel, “but opening a restaurant is the ultimate goal.”
La Cocina’s commercial kitchen is located in the Mission, near the corner of 25th and Folsom. The nonprofit launched more than a decade ago to provide enterprising women immigrants selling food out of their homes with opportunities not found in white, male-dominated kitchens. The idea took off and the organization has helped to incubate and hatch 96 food businesses, including 23 brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The program itself can be likened to an intensive university experience where students graduate with a solid food business and the resources and contacts to back it up. Orientations are offered every other month for anyone interested and applications are accepted three times a year. The acceptance process is rigorous; applicants must prove their idea has legs.
From there, students are taken through a six-month, “pre-incubation” phase where they meet for classroom sessions on everything from finance to marketing to operations. Introductions are made with nonprofit partners that offer pro bono food photography and branding help.
Entrepreneurs are then moved into the “incubation” phase, which can last around five years, during which time La Cocina teaches them how and where to sell their food. Students graduate only when they have a self-sustaining business.
Patel, prepping for deliveries and farmers’ markets, never takes a day off, and commuting from Vallejo means she and Paresh leave home at 6:30 a.m., not getting back in their car until 8 p.m. every night. But the effort, she says, is worth it.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own,” Patel says. “The physical and emotional effort is a lot, and La Cocina has enabled me to make my dream a reality.”