La Cocina Municipal Marketplace opened at the beginning of April after years in the making, giving BIPOC female entrepreneurs the chance to operate their small businesses in the heart of downtown San Francisco. Six businesses are currently operating out of the Tenderloin space, with a seventh slated to join, offering everything from Nepalese momos to Algerian stew. It’s a hard-won success in a city that has had historically high rents and costs of operating small food businesses, and an extraordinary partnership between a non-profit and the city government.
Still, not everyone is on board with the mission. When a Twitter commenter questioned the $16 price tag on a plate of four tacos from a La Cocina vendor, asking “What kind of gentrification hell is this?” the non-profit clapped back in the best way.
It’s an important conversation: Who gets to charge what? Often businesses run by BIPOC are expected to fall into the category of “cheap eats,” despite facing the exact same costs encountered by other groups of restaurant owners.
“What makes the marketplace gentrified when you have a market full of immigrants, and a Black woman from the Bayview?” asks Tiffany Carter, chef-owner of Boug Cali in the Marketplace. “I was very offended by that. Obviously everyone is pretty aware of the cost of living in San Francisco, so it’s kind of offensive for people to make those statements, and even more offensive as women of color. It’s like people automatically assume we should have cheap food and we’re not necessarily allowed or looked at to operate at a certain price point.”
In addition to their regular menus, vendors in the Marketplace offer a $5 plate each day, one of the ways the vendors and La Cocina hope to create inclusivity and equity at the market, giving neighborhood residents reasons to come in for a hot meal. Guadalupe Moreno of Mi Morena offers a hearty stew for $5, “in honor of my sister who is the queen of feeding the masses!” For context, one regular taco at El Castillito in the Tenderloin is currently going for $3.49, a comparable price for a plain taco with onions and cilantro.
“We are offering $14 for handmade tacos with fresh stews, fresh locally sourced ingredients, and there are rice and beans in your tacos, it’s a really hearty meal,” says Cyntia Salazar, daughter of Guadlupe Moreno, who helps run her business Mi Morena. “We have to pay employees, ingredients, labor, utility bills, and rent and insurance and storage, and I don’t think a lot of people consider that. Not only that but we are in the middle of a pandemic where ingredients have just gone through the roof.”
Salazar says they kept the prices the same at the Marketplace as they charged when running their food truck, pre-covid. “If anything, we may be losing a little money but we didn’t want to raise our prices, especially here in the Tenderloin.” A few months ago, Mi Morena even briefly stopped serving beef because of skyrocketing prices, and scarcity of the product.
Over the years there’ve been several outrages about the costs of things in the Bay Area, including the famous $4 toast at the Mill, the artisan coffee shop on Divisadero. Since it opened in 2013 the cost of that toast has risen to $8. Right now avocados at SF markets cost anywhere from $.79 to $2.99 each at El Chico Produce in the Mission to 3 for $5 (on sale) at the Marina Safeway. But the cost of that toast also includes the bread baked in house, the cost of the rent on Divisadero, wages and healthcare, and more. Now, does anyone blink at paying that much for toast?
For Salazar and Moreno, opening in the Tenderloin was a longtime goal. They’ve lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, and are very familiar with the scarcity of fresh food there, and it’s important to note the difference between gentrification and the basic provision of goods and services.
“I think it’s really important that people know the costs and the love that goes into it,” says Salazar. “One of our main goals was to have our business here in our own neighborhood because we know how important it is to have accessible food when you have 10 liquor stores in a few blocks.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco has reported the highest increase in grocery prices year-over-year, and currently requires businesses pay a minimum wage of $16.07. It’s something that all restaurateurs are dealing with, from BIPOC vendors to Michelin-starred restaurants — some just have a higher margin available.
We can’t create an equitable food system until we start valuing and supporting those most negatively impacted by the system. Go check out @lacocinamarket to see how they are doing it https://t.co/rGQDG3GTc3— Reem's California (@reems133) April 16, 2021
The lesson? There are endless hidden costs in every dish on every menu in San Francisco (and beyond). Be ready to pay the cost of eating out. The other lesson: Do not come for La Cocina.