Cooking up Success: Supporting Food-Based Microenetrepreneurs

Congratulations! This Entry has been selected as a finalist.

Cooking up Success: Supporting Food-Based Microenetrepreneurs

United StatesWatsonville, United States
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

El Pajaro Community Development Corporation and the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) offer economic empowerment opportunities - through education, training, and access to capital and new markets - to small-scale, disadvantaged food-based microentrepreneurs. Successful microentrepreneurs create sustainable livelihoods that generate income and employment opportunities.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The Central Coast of California is famous for its agriculture, producing millions of dollars in the sale of strawberries, artichokes, raspberries, lettuce and more. Hidden behind this abundance, many of its communities suffer from persistent concentrations of poverty and high unemployment that effect the predominantly rural, immigrant, Latino farmworkers. Unemployment rates in the Central Coast are as high as 27.3% (Watsonville) and 30.9% (Chualar) and poverty rates are as high as s 28.9%. These same communities generate many small, informal food production enterprises that need access to comprehensive, bilingual business development resources to successfully grow, survive, and succeed. This program offers a unique and innovative service to these aspiring entrepreneurs.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Creating opportunities to advance economic security for emerging food-based microentrepreneurs is an effective strategy to build self-sufficiencym and alleviate poverty. Specifically, linking limited-resource, beginner farmers and informal, home-based culinary producers to industry-specific education, access to a shared-use commercial kitchen and equipment, capital, produce distribution networks, and new markets offers affordable, sustainable economic solutions for low-income food producers. By offering comprehensive targeted business support, services and resources, this program creates critical linkages for culinary entrepreneurs to successfully develop sustainable livelihoods, including catering businesses, food trucks, farmers' market stalls and specialty packaged food businesses. This program offers the opportunity for low-income, immigrant micro-entrepreneurs to transition into economic self-sufficiency benefiting themselves, their families and their community.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

EPCDC's Commercial Kitchen Incubator collaboration empowers new and emerging businesses to utilize an affordable, shared commercial kitchen and equipment, network with other business owners, and access appropriate technical assistance including marketing, packaging, distrubution and capital. EPCDC has conducted extensive outreach and orientation presentations with ALBA, Farmlink and the County Resource Conservation District. Interested small entrepreneurs submit an application with basic business information including food product, current and projected sales, food safety certification needs, and a business plan. Applicants without a business plan are referred to EPCDC's business education classes or a consultant. El Pajaro CDC reviews and assesses each applicant and places qualified applicants on its waitlist. There are currently 60 clients on the list. Accepted clients sign a participation agreement and lease and participate in the incubator program and operate their business out of the CKI. Participants receive industry-specific technical assistance related to market analysis, marketing, labeling and packaging, access to capital, and food safety and preparation, and access to affordable produce from ALBA Organics' farmers as needed. New farmers receive training from CKI partner, ALBA. Tenants also pay an affordable rate for the time they need in the kitchen and storage. Successful microenterprise owners develop a formal food-based business that evolves into a self-sufficient, income-generating venture that supports the entrepreneur, their family and the culture.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

The Commercial Kitchen Incubator is the only program in the Central Coast region of California. Nationally recognized kitchen incubator programs, like La Cocina in San Francisco and the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University, share a structure of using a communal commercial kitchen used primarily by low-income, mostly women, immigrant entrepreneurs who want to build a food business but do not have the resources to do so. There are currently no organizations in this region that offer a comprehensive technical assistance program and shared-use commercial kitchen of economic empowerment for disadvantaged farmers and home-based, value-added agricultural producers.

Founding Story

Fresh out of public policy graduate school, EPCDC Executive Director, Carmen Herrera, attended a microenterprise conference ten years ago as the new director of EPCDC. She visited the Oregon Food Innovation Center and was immediately struck by the many possibilities of connecting low-income food-based entrepreneurs with resources that would allow them to succeed and to increase financial self-sufficiency. Connecting a deeper value of breaking down barriers with a practical idea of creating a food-based kitchen incubator in California’s Central Coast, a region recognized for its culturally rich and dynamic farming and less known for its economically vulnerable communities, Carmen has peristed for eight years to create a collaborative and innovative program for low-income, culinary microentreprenurs. The Community Kitchen Incubator is about to launch, harnessing the energy of its partners to create real and lasting change for low-income food-based microentrepreneurs in the region.
About You
El Pajaro Community Development Corporation
About You
First Name


Last Name

Herrera Mansir

About Your Organization
Organization Name

El Pajaro Community Development Corporation

Organization Country

, CA, Watsonville, Santa Cruz County

Country where this project is creating social impact
Age of Innovator

Over 34

Gender of Innovator


How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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How long have you been in operation?

Operating for more than 5 years

Social Impact
What solution(s) does your initiative address to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses grow and thrive in underserved communities? (select all applicable)

Access to financing, Access to talent, Access to supply chains, Access to technology, Access to economic opportunity, Policy change/advocacy.

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

EPCDC serves as an economic engine within its tri-county region, building on the communities’ diverse cultural assets and agricultural roots, and contributing to local entrepreneurship, economic growth, and revitalization. Over the last five years, El Pájaro CDC assisted in the creation of 275 new businesses. Annually, El Pájaro CDC provides business counseling to 300 clients; 65% of these clients are women and 84% are Latino or other minorities. The creation of new businesses means the creation or retention of jobs. A survey conducted on 2011 among El Pajaro CDC’s clients that received 7 or more hours of services showed that business owners supported 132 jobs for themselves and others community members. ALBA generates $4 million in sales of produce annually, 80% of which is from low-income, new farmers who graduated it from ALBA's program. In the last year, ALBA grew from 3 to 6 employees and projects $5 million in sales in the next year. ALBA has served__farmers since inception.

What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?

The CKI will support and increase the capacity of food-related businesses and farms within our region. It will build on the community’s cultural assets and agricultural roots to generate economic growth, revitalization, and increase access to fresh, affordable healthy food and food security. The CKI bring a much needed resource to home-based and aspiring food microentrepreneurs such as caterers, farmers, producers of ethnic or specialty food products, mobile food vendors, Farmers Market vendors, and bakers. At the end of 3 years, 90 participants will formalize food-related businesses and will increase their income by 25%, and 80% will increase their industry and small business knowledge.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

Finding the perfect building and location was an initial practical barrier to the development of this program. However, EPCDC has secured the lease on a 22,000 sq. foot building, a former food processing plant. It is currently working with a food industry consultant and the City of Watsonville's construction manager to complete tenant improvements to launch the CKI. EPCDC has a four-year lease with an option to buy the building. Purchasing the building for long term sustainability is in the CKI business plan, though it may present a potential barrier to future success. EPCDC has established a plan to purchase the building and is currently working with the USDA and potential lenders to finance the purchase of the building.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Task 1

Complete back-end administration structure and procedures prior to opening - HR, employee handbook, training schedules, food saf

Task 2

Hire facilities manager and support staff; select and train 10 - 20 qualified tenants pre-opening

Task 3

Open the CKI for 10 -12 hours a day, with 10 - 20 full operating clients

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

In 12 months, EPCDC's CKI will operate 24 hours, 7 days a week; 30 - 40 tenants will be trained and operating food-based busines

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Task 1

Select and train 10 - 20 additional clients and offer targeted technical assistance

Task 2

Hire and train additional staff; roll out continuing education, access to capital, and technical assistance workshops

Task 3

Financing the purchase of the CKI building will be finalized

Tell us about your partnerships

Both EPCDC and ALBA understand the value of community partnerships, and cannot overstate the organization’s emphasis on leveraging organizational resources through collaboration. Both collaborate with diverse agencies including the City of Watsonville, the Monterey County Economic Development Department, and Community Foundation of Monterey County's Women's Fund and Santa Cruz Community Credit Union to provide access to capital. The City of Watsonville as offered the time of its Construction Manager – free of charge - to facilitate the tenant improvement activities.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list

EPCDC is prepared to share "best practices" of the developing, launch and operation of its Community Kitchen Incubator with communities in the region and around the world.

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