Non-profit cooks up aspiring businesses

CBS MoneyWatch

Alicia Villanueva immigrated to the US from Mexico ten years ago. To make money, she sold homemade tamales door-to-door and outside an Oakland church. Making tamales also kept her connected to her roots.

"In Mexico at Christmas or weddings, all the families would come together and prepare tamales. My tamales for me, it means my family," she says.

Her dream was to own her own business -- a daunting task for even seasoned cooks given that failure rates can be as high as 50 percent. That's when she decided to take her dreams of entrepreneurship to La Cocina.

La Cocina -- a non-profit based in San Francisco -- is trying to level the playing field for aspiring chefs. The group helps low-income people start their own catering, retail or wholesale food businesses by providing funding, kitchen space and a smattering of marketing and operational support.

Since its founding in 2005, La Cocina has helped launch seven businesses -- from an artisanal chocolate company to a food truck specializing in Nicaraguan, Cuban and Thai food.

We went behind the scenes at La Cocina to see how food entrepreneurs are born.

This incubator kitchen caught the attention of celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain -- host of "The Layover" on the Travel Channel. In his series, Bourdain visits cities all across the world in his quest to find the best food and culture in 48 hours.

With a four-person crew in tow, Executive Director Caleb Zigas and Bourdain went to the Chaac Mool food truck in Mission Dolores Park. Chaac Mool is one of 30 businesses that take part in La Cocina's incubator program. To be considered a candidate, aspiring entrepreneurs must present a business plan and show a tremendous amount of drive.

"We're looking for people who have a talent... who are using good ingredients, who are doing something that's handmade and high quality. That's the kind of product that we'll be proud to stand behind," says Leticia Landa, the programs manager.

And pride is what radiates from Villanueva when she talks about her recently launched food truck "Tamales Los Mayas," that caters to the crowds near the Embarcadero.

"La Cocina is really the best thing that happened in my life," she says. "I don't have the words to say how happy I am. Everyday I just pinch myself to see: am I living these beautiful things that are happening to me? I'm really going to give my kids a better future than I had."

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    Jen Haley is a senior producer at CNET in San Francisco where she directs the news video team. She was a business news producer at CNN in New York for more than a decade and received the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship at Columbia Business School.