Caleb Zigas has worked in restaurants for most of his life, from dishwasher to pastry chef to waiter, and was always struck by the fact that many talented line cooks were immigrants who had limited opportunities to be restaurant owners. “They didn’t have the same access to capital and wealth,” he says. “Everyone was working so hard and mostly for minimum wage. It wasn’t fair.”
That’s why Zigas supports immigration reform that would help newcomers without an established credit history here, apply for small business loans. He’d also like to see greater government support for organizations that support those immigrant entrepreneurs. La Cocina, which supports immigrants as they launch their own food service businesses, has grown from a startup with a $400,000 budget and four businesses in incubation to an organization operating on $2 million annually with 34 businesses in incubation and 20 graduates.
Zigas started as a volunteer at La Cocina in 2008 and has been executive director since 2011. He was inspired by the story of how a café called Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles had helped transform the drug-ridden neighborhood of McArthur Park. “It married what I wanted to do—creative positive social change—with what I knew how to do—make and sell food,” he says. Over the years, he has watched his members flourish. For example, a Mexican immigrant who started selling tamales door to door when she first came to the United States is now expanding her production by opening a factory. And a woman who came here as a refugee from Cambodia when she was a child is now running a successful Cambodian pop-up food business.
Immigrants have long been the basis for our food community. American food is immigrant food.
In addition to offering technical assistance and business development advice, La Cocina subsidizes commercial kitchen space so that members can prep food for market sales, catering operations, or packaging. “Our goal is to direct women towards opportunities that are asset generators, but the barriers to entry are too high,” says Zigas, 35, adding that the organization helps them launch their businesses with less than $5,000 in capital.
Zigas believes that supporting immigrants’ entrepreneurial dreams is vital to creating a vibrant economy that benefits us all. “I think in a city like San Francisco that prides itself above all else with innovation and disruption, that the greatest innovation tends to come from people who have migrated in one way or another,” he says. “Immigrants have long been the basis for our food community. American food is immigrant food.”