San Francisco's La Cocina Helps Break Down Barriers

Photo:La Cocina
The entrepreneurial spirit is as alive as ever in The City by The Bay. From its first non-Native American inhabitants from Spain who tried to colonize the strategic bay with missions and forts, to the Gold Rushers of 1849 who left whatever lives they had for the possibility of striking it rich, to the current onslaught of young techies trying to change the world while happily paying $2,500 for small studio apartments, the city of San Francisco has been built on a glorious history of people leaving everything behind and building something on their own. (It's quite similar to L.A. in that regard.)

But here's the big problem with any kind of start-up, whether it's coding a new app or, as I'm about to discuss here, making an independent restaurant: It needs a whole lot of help to become successful.

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That help not only comes in terms of cash, which can certainly assist when it comes to, say, renting a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of a bustling neighborhood. Help also means things you can't buy, like business connections to promote the restaurant to the masses, an understanding of how certain city licenses work, and knowing how to handle the tax implications that come with starting a new business. It's this "know-how" part of the process that allows relatively few places to succeed, while an ever-expanding roster of failed ventures sit in the graveyard of non-renewed business licenses.

If you want to get all poli-sci about this, it the essentially problem with the whole "bootstraps theory," the belief that any person with enough willpower and elbow grease can succeed without outside assistance. The problem with this theory is that it's only possible on a playing field where everyone is living under such conditions, as opposed to the quite uneven playing field that the world of American business is. Which means that, no matter how great the idea for a restaurant is, or how amazing a chef is, they can fall through the cracks if they don't know how to play the game.

Unless, that is, there was a way to break the game. Enter: La Cocina.

The project resides in S.F.'s Mission District -- where many of those aforementioned $2,500 studio apartments also currently reside -- and it has spent the past three-plus years assisting the food-based endeavors of hard-working, brilliant entrepreneurs who don't have the necessary "startup capital." As this great piece by NPR puts it:

Entrepreneurs spend roughly three to five years in the program, learning about operations, finance, marketing and other business basics. They also can meet angel investors, microfinanciers and venture capitalists through La Cocina's connections.
As small-business owners mature in the program, they eventually work on a six-month exit strategy and graduate. The lead time provides a cushion while the entrepreneurs locate outside space and demonstrate they can market and manage operations for their business.

One need only take a gander at the list of the company's successes to understand the importance of this model. Instead of your now-standard array of gastropubs and stainless-steel-heavy places named after some part of a pig, the ideas coming from the program are healthy frozen foods for kids and vegetarian tofu spring rolls sold at local groceries. These are businesses that wouldn't have had a chance if not for La Cocina's ability to find a great idea and mold it into an actual successful one.

L.A., it's your turn to come up with something this great.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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