Nafy Flatley found herself out of options at the end of a successful, ascendant career trajectory. She had graduated from the University of San Francisco. She had worked in startups — bouncing from company to company and from communications assistant to director of communications. She’d crisscrossed the country, organizing trade show demonstrations. But after marrying, having a child, and learning of her mother’s dementia diagnosis, she noticed a shift in her world.
“I wasn’t as desirable as I used to be,” Flatley says. “It was kind of hard for me, so I took care of my family for a couple of years. But my husband’s single income wasn’t enough.”
So, in 2015, she went to La Cocina. Flatley already knew that she wanted to share her cooking with San Francisco, but despite all her professional experience, she still had a hard time navigating the bureaucratic process of formalizing her business — a Senegalese food and juice company called Teranga. She was making some money here and there, but La Cocina took her to the next level. She ran focus groups, received counseling, and got financial support.
“I heard about La Cocina from TV,” Flatley says. “It came back into my head. A nonprofit that supports immigrant women in business specifically.”
Fast forward to 2021 and Flatley is now one of seven vendors operating out of La Cocina’s newly opened Municipal Marketplace on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin. The organization’s goal is to support its entrepreneurs, but also to join the community of the Tenderloin.
“It really gave me a lot of courage,” Flatley says of the support she received from La Cocina. “I was extremely lucky to be a part of the cohort.”
La Cocina chose the Marketplace hosts based on a number of criteria: How ready were the entrepreneurs? Were they La Cocina graduates? Would their menus serve the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s most diverse neighborhoods?
“We are all in the same room. We had better get along!” Flatley says with a laugh. “We are all pursuing the American dream. We felt comfortable that we would do well together. We created a bond before we opened the market.”
Estrella Gonzales went through the same process. Her mother, Maria del Carmen Flores, spent 30 years making and selling tostadas and pupusas, and created Estrellita’s Snacks, joining La Cocina in 2005. Alongside her husband, son, and sister, Gonzales now helms the family business in La Cocina’s new space.
“Working with La Cocina is good for us,” Gonzales says. “In the Mission, pupusas are very popular, but in this new area not so much. Pupusas are the traditional, principal dish in El Salvador. People here can learn that now and try something different.”
Both Estrella’s Snacks and Teranga have similar business models: They sell packaged goods in markets and through companies like Good Eggs, host booths at farmer’s markets, and now run a brick and mortar location at the Municipal Marketplace.
When COVID-19 hit, La Cocina pivoted to support its entrepreneurs and graduates. They helped business owners apply for PPP loans, started the “Community Box” program (that featured items from both Teranga and Estrella), and created an emergency relief fund for owners to draw from.
“We sell our chips into stores and markets,” Gonzales says. “There wasn’t much to produce, but then there was repeat business through these programs that helped.”
The Municipal Marketplace is located inside of an old post office. The tenant entrepreneurs have all signed one-year leases, and the location is signed to La Cocina until 2026. The space features a community room that could host cottage vendors for temporary events and a communal corner for reading and programming.
“[You can have] book clubs, have meetings, use the computer,” says Naomi Maisel, Manager of Community Partnerships and Food Justice Advocacy. Maisel works as the liaison between residents, businesses, and nonprofits in the area and La Cocina. “I was talking to Del Seymour about it and he said there’s not a lot of places in the Tenderloin you can go to and just chill.” (Seymour is the executive director of Code Tenderloin and leads walking tours around the neighborhood.)
“I want to ensure the marketplace is accessible,” Maisel says. “La Cocina is a nonprofit business incubator. The entire point of that is to encourage entrepreneurs to reach economic freedom.”
Ensuring accessibility has meant offering $5 meals, accepting EBT cards, and serving community dinners. Even before the marketplace officially opened, it provided meals to SRO residents.
Maisel’s background is in gastronomy (food science) and its intersections with migration and history. La Cocina seemed like a perfect organization for her. She’s been working there since February 2020, right before the pandemic lockdowns began.
Developing the Tenderloin without planting the seeds of gentrification is tricky. Maisel is interested in actual resource development for Tenderloin residents and La Cocina graduates. She says that she’ll know the market is successful when locals become regulars and the entrepreneurs’ livelihoods improve.
“There’s so much strong community here. Guadelupe Moreno and her daughter from Mi Morena live a couple of blocks away,” Maisel says. “It’s such a warm and loving space to be in.”
Flatley adds that the Tenderloin is a place riddled with misconceptions. The vendors took a walking tour of the area while preparing to join the neighborhood and visited the Tenderloin Museum.
“When I first Googled the neighborhood, I saw prostitution, drugs, and smelly streets,” Flatley says. “Now I feel like San Francisco was built right here in the Tenderloin! This is the heart of San Francisco.”
Flatley is no stranger to being typecast. She says it’s common for customers to approach her table at a farmer’s market at the Ferry Plaza or in her home neighborhood of the Richmond District and make condescending comments.
“They look at me and think I work for someone,” Flatley says. “‘Do you mind giving me the card for the owner?’ ‘How can you be the owner?’ ‘You’re not from here.’ Just because of my accent.”
La Cocina feels that their presence can help show what the business owners and immigrants have to offer. Maisel acknowledges the problems in the Tenderloin: high rates of unemployment and high poverty rates. But she says that’s tied up in the history of the area and the city, something that Flatley agrees with: “Those are realities, but there is another side of the Tenderloin that is so beautiful and powerful. That is what we are trying to activate.”
Gonzales says that in her mind there’s an opportunity to talk about new things.
“The community can be more than being just Latino, or being more than just color or being of the same things,” Gonzales says. “That’s why this project is important for us here.”
La Cocina Municipal Marketplace
332 Golden Gate Ave. for takeout
Mon-Fri, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
415-570-2595 | lacocinamarketplace.com
Paolo Bicchieri is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @paoloshmaolo