As soon as you enter the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, smells of coffee, frying pupusas, and pastries drenched in honey seem to bounce off the bright pink-and-purple walls and waft over you.
The marketplace is located in a former post office in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a lively neighborhood with many working families; it also has the city’s highest crime rate.
It opened in April 2021 as a spin-off from La Cocina, a kitchen incubator program designed to help women—mostly immigrant women—start food businesses. Naomi Maisel, community partnerships and food justice advocacy manager, explained how the organization aims to become a part of the neighborhood, saying that they want “community members to literally have a place at the table.” The mix of seven chef vendors represents the diversity of the neighborhood.
From left: Nafy Flatley of Senegalese food counter Teranga; a worker pouring aguas frescas at Mexican food vendor Los Cilantros; Wafa Bahloul of Algerian eatery Kayma.
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Vendor rent is $500 a month, a shockingly low rate in San Francisco. However, La Cocina continues to provide rent relief to these businesses given the challenges of the pandemic. To support the community, chefs chose to offer a $5 plate designed to be an inexpensive option for local residents.
Photos and murals decorate the walls at La Cocina Municipal Marketplace.
In the Tenderloin, only 39 percent of the community has access to a stove, so a source of healthy, appealing, affordable food is important—especially with so many young people in the neighborhood.
When it opened, the food hall was restricted to only to-go orders for the first five months because of the pandemic. When local schools were forced to shift to remote learning, the restaurateurs often brought their children to work with them; the children would space out at tables around the 7,000-square-foot building and use the public computers for virtual schooling while their parents prepared to-go meals nearby.
The chefs took turns cooking lunch for the kids; one day the remote school lunch was po’ boys, the next Algerian food, and the next spaghetti sandwiches that chef Nafy Flatley had learned to make in Senegal.
While the space eventually offered limited on-site lunch service, according to Jay Foster, manager of the Municipal Marketplace, they’re hoping to expand to dinner service soon but are taking it step by step. But change is constant: The marketplace is currently operating on a short-term lease, and the tentative plan is for the city to turn the space into low-income housing.
On top of the brightly colored walls are freshly painted images of chefs. And there’s a quote by Lilla Watson that embodies the feeling at La Cocina: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Photo credit: Steve Klise