But now the moment has finally come: On Monday, the 7,000-square-foot La Cocina Municipal Marketplace will open its doors for thrillingly diverse lunchtime takeout service: pupusas, tacos de guisado, Algerian-style couscous and California-Creole jerk chicken tacos.
La Cocina conceived of the food hall as a new platform for its women- and immigrant-focused incubator program. The chefs for the six kiosks that are opening on Monday are all women of color who graduated from that program. For several of the businesses, the food hall represents their first physical storefront. And beyond that, the 101 Hyde Street project is also meant to serve as a model for community-led development—to be an economic engine and a spark of revitalization for one of the more troubled blocks in the Tenderloin.
The lineup of restaurants includes Boug Cali (California Creole), Estrellita’s Snacks (Salvadoran), Kayma (Algerian), Los Cilantros (Mexican), Mi Morena (Mexican) and Terenga (Senegalese). When indoor service launches—probably at some point during the summer—a seventh kiosk, the Nepalese momo specialist Bini’s Kitchen, will open, along with a cocktail bar called La Paloma. Taken all together, the food hall spans a wide range of cuisines and cultures, including several that have been largely underrepresented in the Bay Area restaurant scene.
afa Bahloul, who runs Kayma along with her husband Mounir, tells KQED that she was working as a cook at Navi Kitchen, Preeti Mistry’s Indian pizza restaurant in Emeryville, when Mistry encouraged her to sign up for the incubator program. (Mistry, for her part, calls Bahloul a “rockstar,” and credits her with perfecting the restaurant’s popular pork-based breakfast burger—despite not eating pork herself.)
Her new business, Kayma, serves very traditional Algerian food, from the family-style way that they serve their couscous to the ras el hanout spice mix that Bahloul assembles using 30 different spices. There are a few California touches too, like the Dutch crunch bread she uses for her saucy merguez sausage sandwich.
Last March, the Bahlouls had just decided to launch a new food trailer at the same time as the Marketplace kiosk, and wound up scuttling those plans when the pandemic hit. In some sense, they were lucky: The shutdown happened before they spent the money they’d planned to invest in those projects. Still, Bahloul says, the past year has been incredibly stressful: “For me, the most scary thing is I don’t have a family here. It’s just me and my husband and our two daughters. If I get sick, who will take care of them?”
For Boug Cali’s Tiffany Carter, the delay was a mixed blessing. She says she was able to use the last year to really slow down and perfect her menu—which, Carter says, largely consisted of freeing herself of any expectation that her California Creole style of cooking needed to conform to the type of food you’d find in, say, Louisiana. Now, she’s serving jerk chicken tacos on flour tortillas and adding California flourishes to almost everything on the menu. “I’m probably making ‘inauthentic’ po’boys. I’m a proud San Franciscan,” Carter says. “I don’t think you will find a Golden State Po’boy [with avocado in it] in Louisiana.”
A San Francisco native who's lived all over the city, Carter says she’s long wanted to open a restaurant in the Tenderloin. “The Tenderloin deserves something good, too, to have,” she says. “It’s rough around the edges, but I like that.”
ndeed, there’s no talking about La Cocina’s food hall without noting its location right in the heart of the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that has been the epicenter of the city’s homelessness crisis and opioid epidemic—all aspects of the neighborhood that are front and center on the specific block where the food hall sits. And while other high-profile restaurants have opened in the Tenderloin in recent years, few have embraced the neighborhood in the same way as the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace.
During a trial run last week, cooks were largely cordoned off in their own stations, assembling sandwiches and packing grain bowls into plastic takeout containers. Customers won’t be allowed inside the space for the time being. But the idea is for the Marketplace to eventually serve as a colorful, bustling community gathering place for the neighborhood, with free internet access and books for kids.
The idea is not to cloister the food hall’s businesses away from the realities of the neighborhood, says Jay Foster, who manages the Marketplace. Foster is probably best known as the chef-owner of the soul food restaurant Farmerbrown, which had a 13-year run in the Tenderloin before it closed in 2018.
For Foster, La Cocina’s emphasis on helping revitalize the Tenderloin was a big part of what attracted him to the project, which has community outreach built into its business model. That includes hiring people from the neighborhood and partnering with nearby nonprofits to help feed residents who are experiencing food insecurity. Every day, the food hall will offer a $5 meal special, and most dishes on the various kiosks’ menus are in the ballpark of $10.
“Changing the community is not pushing everybody out of the community so we can have rich people be comfortable,” Foster says.
Of course, La Cocina’s other top priority is helping its fledgling food entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground in a sustainable way. Bahloul and Carter both say La Cocina’s support—which includes distributing nearly a million dollars in emergency cash relief to its members—has been invaluable during the pandemic. None of the businesses opening in the Municipal Marketplace have had to pay rent over the course of the long delay, and, while no final decision has been made, Foster says the rent-free arrangement is likely to continue through the end of the 2021 fiscal year.
“We don’t really feel that charging entrepreneurs rent is going to be sustainable for them,” Foster says. “It’s going to be really tough for a while.”
ven when the kiosks do start having to pay full rent, the rates will be shockingly low by San Francisco standards—about $500 a month, Foster says. All of which to say: During a time when small businesses are particularly vulnerable, La Cocina isn’t your typical landlord.
Those terms are made possible by the unique arrangement that La Cocina has with the city of San Francisco, which owns the 101 Hyde Street building and is leasing it to La Cocina at a steeply discounted rate. What that also means, however, is that the food hall project has a fixed end date from the very start: In December of 2025, the city will begin constructing affordable housing on the site.
“The goal is not to be there forever,” Foster says. “The goal is to create a business model and to be able to demonstrate how to offset the price of gentrification.”
La Cocina’s biggest hope, Foster says, is that other city governments will view La Cocina’s collaboration with San Francisco as a model that they can replicate, setting up similar food halls in vacant buildings to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods.
“Instead of giving all this money away in terms of tax breaks to the tech companies, invest in your local community—in your local small business owner,” Foster says. “By creating marketplaces like this, not only can you help people create vibrant businesses, but you can maintain your culture and you can change the community from the ground up.”
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Kayma’s Bahloul say they’re just grateful to finally be able to open after all those months of waiting—to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. “La Cocina did everything for me,” she says. “They opened the golden gate for me; they gave me the golden key to open the door. Now it’s time for me to do my part.”
Starting on April 5, the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace will be open for takeout only Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Customers can order via the Marketplace website, and pick up their food at the food hall’s side entrance, at 332 Golden Gate Avenue.
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