Giving start-up businesses a leg up
Cocina Cortés offers support for new businesses at its new community-kitchen center
Local small-businessman Josh Smith’s new Green on the Go street-vendor operation—featuring healthful, organic salads and fresh-fruit-and-yogurt parfaits—will start selling its wares at local farmers’ markets any day now. It is just one of a number of fledgling businesses that are renting commercial-kitchen and/or floor space at Cocina Cortés, the new community-kitchen center located in what was formerly Taco Cortés restaurant, on Dayton Road.
Cocina Cortés opened its doors in mid-April and already boasts relationships with a number of small local enterprises, including Blush Catering, Magoo’z (a hot-dog vendor that sells its eats in the Enloe Medical Center neighborhood), Spanish-language computer instructor Sergio García and community-based nutrition-education program Opt for Healthy Living, which will soon offer nutrition and cooking classes at the site in English, Spanish and Hmong. Local health-and-fitness group Let’s Move! Chico holds its regular meetings there.
“He’s the kind of person we want to support—a small, start-up business trying to make a name for himself,” said Gloria Covarrubias of Smith and his new venture. Covarrubias runs Cocina Cortés along with her boyfriend, Francisco Cortés, and his father, Rodolfo Cortés. “You know, Mr. Cortés, he started with the taco truck out here, and he has the belief that anyone can make it if you try.”
Covarrubias was referring to the days in the early- to mid-1980s when Rodolfo Cortés had the only taco truck in town, before he built the Tacos Cortés restaurant in 1988 on the same Dayton Road site where he parked the truck.
The belief of pioneering small-businessman Cortés—who also owns the Tacos Cortés walk-up restaurant on Park Avenue—that “anyone can make it” is strong, and is the impetus behind the Cocina Cortés philosophy that small businesses are worthy of a helping hand in the form of an affordable space out of which to operate.
“Rodolfo said he’s gained so much from the community throughout all these years,” said Covarrubias, “and he thought it was time to give back.”
In the case of start-up food-serving concerns, access to a licensed, health-department-inspected commercial kitchen with an area for refrigerated food storage is crucial—it is required by state law. Starting up one’s own commercial kitchen, said Covarrubias, is expensive: “The minimum is $250,000 to set up your own kitchen—the equipment, the kitchen—and that’s not including the license.” Starting up at fully equipped Cocina Cortés costs a small fraction of that.
Jen Cartier is a 27-year-old mother of three who owns Blush Catering (www.blushcatering.com), which focuses on fresh, locally sourced food, and offers gluten-free options as well. In May, she moved her year-and-a-half-old business into Cocina Cortés, drawn in part by the affordable rent. The previous commercial kitchen where she rented space became too expensive, she said.
“It’s good for small businesses to link up and share rent,” said Cartier. “You can’t run a food business without being in a commercial kitchen. [Cocina Cortés] has already done all the work to make the space certifiable.”
Cartier said that Cocina Cortés is especially good for caterers because, as a former restaurant, the space has a dining area that is “perfect for rehearsal dinners or a shower.”
Susan and Michael Messatzzia, owners of Magoo’z, were at Cocina Cortés recently, having just come in after a day of selling hot dogs from their cart near Enloe Medical Center. Susan praised the affordability and convenience—and camaraderie with other renters—of operating out of Cocina Cortés’ large kitchen.
“This is our first month in business,” said Susan. “We had planned on starting this business, and we were searching and searching and searching for a place to start our business. Someone gave me the phone number of Cocina Cortés. Without this place, we wouldn’t be in business. We haven’t been able to find a place that does this.”
As for licensing, “since they’re taking care of the kitchen part, I only have to take care of my cart,” she said.
Local food activist and Let’s Move! Chico member Laurie Niles views Cocina Cortés as a “kitchen incubator”—an increasingly popular type of outfit in cities across the United States that fosters start-up businesses by offering a number of services under one roof, such as commercial-kitchen access, food-preparation classes and assistance with marketing that would otherwise be too expensive.
“A community that has a kitchen incubator and a shared food-storage facility is rich,” said Niles, “both offering back to its community food sustainability and economic strength. … The overall goal of the kitchen incubator is … incubating a business [while] reducing some of those high overhead expenses, while the business grows a plan and ideally can grow into its own business space.”
Because Cocina Cortés doesn’t currently offer such services as business planning, mentoring and cooking classes (common features of most incubator programs) Covarrubias is hesitant to call it a kitchen incubator—yet.
“We’re trying to move toward being an incubator program,” she said.
However, Cocina Cortés is one step closer to that definition since welcoming on board environmental-health specialist Mike Boian, who until recently worked for Butte County Environmental Health. Starting Aug. 8, Boian will be Cocina Cortés’ in-house teacher of the ServSafe certification courses required for all new commercial-venue food handlers, as well as those up for renewal of certification, which must take place every five years.
Also in the works is a tomato-canning workshop by local food cooperative GRUB, which is located down the road from Cocina Cortés, in which participants will learn to can the tomatoes they pick from the GRUB farm.
“More and more people are creating small businesses because of the recession,” noted Covarrubias. “We want to do as much as we can on our side to help out with whatever needs they have. There are just so many people who need this, which is really the nice part—being able to help so many people at once.”