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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."