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A Food Hall That’s All About Opportunity. And Food.

When La Cocina Municipal Marketplace opens this coming spring in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, it will be the country’s first women-led food hall and and the first to take on the innovative role of serving up affordable, healthy food to longtime local residents (as well as to foodie visitors). It also provides manageable rents and business opportunities for the mostly women of color entrepreneurs who will be running the culinary show and who see food as a language connecting people, places and culture. Plus, with support from LISC, La Cocina has activated a long-vacant post office, transforming a former crime hot spot.

From her kiosk in the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, a new food hall set to open next spring in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Guadalupe Moreno will be serving tacos de guisado. These savory stews folded in a handmade tortilla link Moreno to the food traditions of her native Mexico City, and to warm memories of her childhood there, the cherished youngest of ten children. Bursting with the flavor of fresh ingredients, Moreno’s tacos also represent her deepest aspiration—to build a food business strong enough to pass on to her three children, securing the Morenos a prosperous future in the American city where they’ve lived and strived for 20 years.

Food halls are springing up in cities across the country, a trend, according to the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, driven by a wave of consumers “hungry for authenticity.” The La Cocina Municipal Marketplace stands to demonstrate what “keeping it real” looks like when the first priorities are genuine opportunity for vendors, and true access for neighborhood residents.

Maria del Carmen Flores of Estrellita’s Snacks
Maria del Carmen Flores of Estrellita’s Snacks

Billed as the country’s first women-led food hall, the Marketplace will feature seven local food entrepreneurs, all women of color, including one native San Franciscan and immigrants from Nepal, Algeria, El Salvador, and Senegal as well as Moreno’s Mexico. Each of these women has been working with La Cocina, a nonprofit food-business incubator, to turn her own culinary talent and culture into a business that can compete in San Francisco, a foodie capital where the industry’s high barriers to entry include astronomical commercial rents topping $80 per square foot.

And everything about La Cocina’s food hall, from its vendor selection to its daily $5-meal specials to its cozy play area for kids, aims not to exoticize or rebrand the Tenderloin but to extend warm hospitality to its people. This small neighborhood of downtown San Francisco is one of last places in the city where people without a lot of money can still afford to live—a foothold for working families, new immigrants, and students, and a landing place for those who are unhoused or working their way through the tumult of addiction and recovery.

 “We want the Marketplace to be a space where the foodies of the city are welcome,” says Consuelo Reyes Lopez, La Cocina communications associate, “but primarily it’s catered to the families, and folks in the Tenderloin who haven’t been given the option of a healthy affordable meal in a really long time.”

"[La Cocina Municipal Marketplace caters] primarily to the families and folks in the Tenderloin who haven’t been given the option of a healthy affordable meal in a really long time.”
— Consuelo Reyes Lopez, La Cocina

The project embeds commerce in placemaking; it will activate a long-vacant post office building, on a corner that has been a hotspot for drug trade and other crime, in ways that surface the Tenderloin’s singular culture and serve its urgent needs.

All this rests on substantial civic and philanthropic investment. The city kicked in $1.5 million toward the hall’s construction, and La Cocina’s vigorous fundraising has reaped nearly the rest of a $5.3 million capital budget. To lower risk for Marketplace entrepreneurs and offer community-serving products and programming, La Cocina is also working to raise about $200,000 a year in operating funds.

The La Cocina team hopes this experiment will create a model for investment in the bustling commercial spaces that are just as critical to a community’s vitality as housing or parks.

Guadalupe Moreno, the cook behind Mi Morena, a venture that's fulfilling her deepest aspiration: to build a food business strong enough to pass on to her three children
Guadalupe Moreno, the cook behind Mi Morena, a venture that's fulfilling her deepest aspiration: to build a food business strong enough to pass on to her three children

It may also demonstrate an alternative to the food hall as developer-driven, glossy remake of urban space. “Nominally anyone can go into these markets,” says La Cocina Executive Director Caleb Zigas, “but they’re designed for only one kind of person. And they really limit who can start businesses. You’re getting homogenous outcomes, and that homogeneity is going to strangle a city. Because cities have thrived on this vibrancy of innovation that oftentimes if not always comes from people who are under stress and duress.” 

Food with roots

Moreno first learned to cook as a child at the elbow of her older sister and mother, inheriting her own version of the family “sazón” or seasoning mix. After moving to San Francisco and settling in the Tenderloin with her husband and first child (two more were born there), she worked for many years as a line cook in Mexican restaurants. When she joined La Cocina four years ago to build her own business, Moreno says, she wanted to offer customers a kind of home-cooked, traditional Mexican fare that’s less available in the States.

Given the outsized role that women like Moreno have played in the creation and dissemination of food cultures around the globe, it’s ironic that the landscape of proprietorship she and the other Marketplace entrepreneurs are breaking into is dominated by white men. That’s about connections and capital. By offering access to a commercial kitchen, industry-specific technical assistance, and marketing opportunities like catering and street-festival gigs, La Cocina has helped dozens of low-income women of color scale industry barriers to establish bricks-and-mortar restaurants around the Bay Area. LISC’s support for La Cocina has focused on its work incorporating these businesses into affordable housing developments. It also included a $25,000 pre-development grant for the marketplace last year.

Momos, Tibetan dumplings, from Bini's Kitchen
Momos, Tibetan dumplings, from Bini's Kitchen

La Cocina and its entrepreneurs have scored exuberant accolades from Food & Wine, the vaunted Michelin Guide, Bon Appétit, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others—thanks to culinary excellence, and an approach to branding that sees food as a kind of language connecting people, places, and cultures. The businesswomen of the Municipal Marketplace will be strengthening their brands by imparting stories and values along with the Nepalese dumplings or baobob juice or fragrant ras el hanout lamb they’re serving up.

Moreno, for her part, will also be inviting her neighbors into the space. She hopes the Marketplace will be a boon for the place her family calls home.

A space to feel at home

Amid San Francisco’s dazzling tech wealth and spiraling rents, a hip new food venue in the heart of the Tenderloin might all too easily come off as a harbinger of gentrification. “We are hyper-aware of that,” says Zigas. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure the space always feels rooted in the community that it was born out of.”

That’s where placemaking comes in. La Cocina staff have been reaching out to involve the neighborhood’s many resident leaders, organizers, and service providers in planning. Dina Mendoza, an organizer with the local advocacy group La Voz Latina, took part in one such get-together. “It was a very intimate meeting,” she says, “and it all happened in Spanish.”

Residents in the densely populated but historically underserved Tenderloin, says Mendoza, are excited at the prospect of a place to gather for birthday parties and other family occasions. With many living in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels without stoves, residents clearly need a place to get nutritious, hot, palate-pleasing meals at prices they can afford.

But whether the Marketplace feels accessible to them will also depend on ambiance. La Cocina’s Sarah Qadri, who will manage the Marketplace and has immersed herself in neighborhood outreach, says the aesthetic will reflect local tastes— be pristinely clean, yet softer and homier than the sleek, industrial-chic look of the typical urban food hall. There is concern for safety among Tenderloin residents, but also a discomfort with being policed by uniformed security guards; so La Cocina is contracting with a local service organization to provide safety personnel trained in de-escalation. “They really understand how to work with those in crisis and addiction, without taking away their dignity, without scaring other people,” says Qadri.

Perhaps the most important sign of welcome residents have identified is seeing the new space occupied by familiar faces—people who “look like” them. Reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity starts with the vendors themselves. And La Cocina hopes to raise enough money to invite neighborhood groups to be the first to sample the space and its offerings. “We want to spend the first couple of months not opening to the public intentionally,” says Zigas, “and instead say, ‘this is for the community, come in, come learn with us, and then no matter who comes when we throw these doors wide open, this is always a place for you.’”

The challenge ahead

Planning the Marketplace has been a high-stakes game for La Cocina. As if to make a point about the exorbitant resources required to open a bricks-and-mortar business in San Francisco, construction costs have ballooned well beyond the $1 or $2 million initially contemplated. What’s more, the Marketplace is to be temporary by design, intended to fill the old post office building with relaxed fun (the bar stays open ‘til ten), eats, and local happenings until 2026, when an affordable housing development is slated for construction there.

The exterior of La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, housed in a former post office, is adorned with a mural called “Humming with Life” by San Francisco artist Johanna Poethig.
The exterior of La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, housed in a former post office, is adorned with a mural called “Humming with Life” by San Francisco artist Johanna Poethig.

It’s an opportunity for proof of concept. Zigas is confident La Cocina will be invited to adapt the model for other developments in the neighborhood and city, if the Marketplace works—if it sparks the kind of commerce that generates social and material riches together.

That’s a model other cities, not to mention those many consumers hungering for authenticity, can't help but notice. Watch this space.