Backstory: Their place is in the kitchen

Yumna McCann started her own meat pie business with the help of a San Francisco nonprofit that aids immigrant women.

La Cocina bustles with activity. Pots clang. Water gushes from spouts around the industrial kitchen. At four large workstations, cooks chop, mix, bake, and sauté various food items. It's a feast for the senses: The smell of freshly chopped green onions permeates the air in one corner, while the scent of boiling strawberry jam saturates another.

But today one aroma trumps all the others – that of buttery pie crust. Only moments ago, Yumna McCann has pulled some 60 savory meat and vegetarian pies from the oven. Small enough to be eaten like a sandwich, the pies were often a staple for Ms. McCann while growing up in Cape Town, South Africa. "Pies were my mom's treats for doing my chores," she says. "I would wake up on Sunday morning, and I would smell beef pie and floor polish."

Today, McCann may be trying to forget the smell of floor polish, but is hoping the meat pies are the key to building a life in America – and becoming the master of her own creative domain. With the aid of La Cocina, a nonprofit group that helps immigrant women launch their own food enterprises, McCann is the proud and determined owner of Mystipies, a wholesale food and catering company that now turns out 600 meat- and vegetable-filled pastries a week.

While she hasn't yet become the Wolfgang Puck of beef pies, her fledgling enterprise is a long way from her upbringing in a poor black neighborhood of Cape Town, under the lash of apartheid.

***

Mystipies is one of 14 companies operating out of an industrial kitchen in a contemporary building in San Francisco's Mission district. The facilities are the creation of La Cocina, a group that was formed several years ago after a study showed that many women in the predominantly Latino neighborhood prepared and sold food out of their homes. Access to large commercial kitchens, where fees can cost $70 an hour, and the lack of business acumen were some of the hurdles these women faced in expanding their businesses.

La Cocina's new space houses administrative offices as well as the kitchen that would make Emeril envious – with four large workstations, a bevy of stainless steel appliances, and storage facilities, all of which it rents out at modest prices. The nonprofit group also offers business and technical training to program participants, mainly Latino and other immigrant women, to help them grow their businesses. "It's about connecting people at the bright idea stage," says Valeria Perez Ferreiro, executive director of La Cocina.

The current participants make a variety of products, including organic baby food, Filipino stuffed milkfish, and Salvadoran snack foods. Despite the diverse offerings, they all have one thing in common: They've endured a rigorous application process.

To be considered, applicants must bring a feasible business plan. They are screened for product knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit. Once accepted, it takes another six months to set foot in the kitchen. During that time, participants are required to obtain permits and insurance, and fine-tune their business blueprints. This gestation period helps La Cocina weed out those who are unwilling to do the legwork, with good reason: fully 85 percent of businesses in the food industry fail.

"We are looking for people who are willing to take initiative," says program manager Caleb Zigas.

Even after all this, tenants aren't yet ready to turn up the flame on the stainless steel stoves. They still have to hire their own employees, schedule their own hours, and pay for kitchen time out of their own budget – personal responsibilities that the entrepreneurs seem to relish. "It's my business," says Carolina Braunschweig, who owns cmbsweets, a homemade jam and jelly company. "There is no one else."

Industry professionals volunteer time to tutor the women on running a business. Together with La Cocina staff, they shepherd them through the ever-present pitfalls of starting a company. "They are very passionate about what they are doing," says Sandra Murray, a package-design expert who recently conducted a workshop at the nonprofit. "I think their commitment is impressive."

***

McCann never dreamed of owning a business. The youngest and only girl in a black family with three children, all she wanted growing up was an education and to get out of Cape Town. During her childhood, blacks still suffered from the segregated law of apartheid. Her family lived in a poor neighborhood, and while her parents managed to put food on the table, life was a struggle. McCann's mother valued education and forged her daughter's birth certificate so McCann could start school at age 5, not 7, the youngest age that nonwhites were allowed to attend.

"Schooling was really hard. We got the textbooks that were out of date ... we had the worst teachers," she says. "Because nonwhites weren't encouraged to have an education, you really had to fight for it."

And fight she did. McCann graduated from high school in 1988, and enrolled in college. She dropped out after one year when one of the three jobs she worked offered her a full-time position.

Dressed in a white chef's coat, her long brown hair pulled back by a blue scarf, McCann's dark eyes hold steady as she talks about her childhood. Despite some painful memories, it's hard to detect any cynicism in her tone. As she outlines her hopes and dreams for the future, laughter, accompanied by a toothy grin, often punctuates her sentences.

Perhaps it's this same gumption that gave McCann the confidence to leave South Africa at age 21 – with no agenda other than to see the world and with only $100 in her pocket. She took a bus out of town and eventually landed in Paris and Antwerp, working throughout her travels to support her world tour.

She moved to San Francisco in 2001. It was here that McCann started to make her mother's beef pies to ward off the longings of home. Extra pies were given to friends and neighbors. Soon people began knocking on her door, wanting to know when she was going to feel homesick again. That's when the idea came to start her business. But it wasn't until she discovered La Cocina that McCann realized Mystipies was her destiny.

"When I walked into the kitchen, it was amazing," she says. "I told them, 'It doesn't matter what you throw at me, I'm getting into this kitchen.' "

***

More than 18 months into her program, McCann works three shifts a week hunched over the La Cocina ovens and stoves. She and her one assistant now churn out several hundred pies a week. A part-time driver delivers the goods to three cafes and one whole-foods store in the city.

While her menu includes a variety of beef, chicken, and vegetarian pies – all wrapped in her trademark flaky golden crust – she also offers a full menu of South African cuisine.

McCann confesses that learning to run a business isn't easy. Each day brings new challenges: FDA label rules, USDA certifications, updating her website. But in addition to the La Cocina staff, she receives invaluable support from her husband.

"He is not a kitchen person, but he comes in and scrubs sheet pans for me," she says.

By the time she graduates from La Cocina, perhaps in 2008, McCann hopes to have contracted with a packing facility to mass produce pies. Eventually she'd like to open a South African restaurant and write a cookbook. But whatever the future holds, McCann is confidant Mystipies will succeed.

"People always talk about what happens if this business doesn't work – that's not an option," she says. "I've found what I want to do, and it feels great."

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