From the Neapolitans who opened some of the country’s first pizza parlors in turn-of-the-century Manhattan to the Havana-born cigar-makers who brought Tampa the Cuban sandwich, immigrants have always defined American cuisine. What’s more, their labor has long underpinned the foundation of the country’s restaurant industry; accounting for 10 percent of the entire American workforce, it’s one of the largest employers of immigrants nationwide. Yet most of the jobs they hold don’t offer wages and benefits that allow for upward mobility. A 2015 study of California’s restaurant industry (the nation’s largest) by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’ advocacy organization, found that restaurant workers of color earn 56 percent less than their white counterparts while 81 percent of management positions are occupied by white workers. Women of color suffer from the largest pay gap, earning $4 less per hour than white men.
But in recent years, a model borrowed from the tech world has begun to address these issues of equity: food incubators, offering culinary entrepreneurs business training, financial support, and free (or heavily subsidized) access to professional-grade kitchens and equipment. At last official count, in 2016, the number of food incubators had increased by 50 percent since 2013, with more than 200 across 39 states, and more are opening all the time—from a food hall in Memphis to a 56-kitchen complex in Chicago. Such training programs—from full-service restaurants developing future chefs to commercial kitchen spaces where entrepreneurs can prepare their products—are particularly beneficial for new immigrants and refugees, who might arrive with cooking skills but lack English fluency and business or social networks.
Here, we visit four such programs, all with slightly different models and methods but each providing new arrivals and underserved populations with the tools to build better businesses and share a taste of their cultures. On top of that, as they spur the creation of food halls, market stalls, and nationally acclaimed restaurants, they’re making their home cities more delicious. What’s more American than that? –Lauren Vespoli
Comal Heritage Food Incubator
Many of the women running the line at Comal Heritage Food Incubator have fled dangerous homes—in Syria, El Salvador, and Mexico—and arrived in Denver with one shared and superior skill: the kind of accomplished home cooking that draws diners from across the city to the sunny restaurant in the River North Art District (RiNo), where murals of Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai look out on plates of fattoush, chicken tinga, and rich red lentil stew.
With luck, though, these women won’t stay for long. Run by the nonprofit educational organization Focus Points Family Resource Center, Comal drafts talented immigrant and refugee cooks (typically maintaining a staff of 15) from two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, which border rapidly gentrifying RiNo—and educates them in commercial food preparation, including scaling recipes to restaurant size and tracking revenue and expenses.
Open weekdays for lunch, Comal rotates its menu daily to showcase its staff ’s various talents: Monday through Wednesday the cuisine is Mexican; Thursday’s offerings include Ethiopian specials like doro wat, in addition to Mexican dishes; and Friday the menu is Syrian. Monthly Impact Dinners, a multicourse meal from a Comal cook or visiting chef, act as regular fundraisers.
Since opening in 2016, the enterprise has made an appearance on Top Chef, won Food & Wine’s endorsement as one of Denver’s best restaurants, and produced several successful grads, including Vian Alnidawi and Sara Nassr, a mother-daughter team who fled the Syrian Civil War.
While working at Comal, they met James Beard Award–winning chef Alon Shaya, who recruited them to cook with him at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, in Florida, and join the staff of his new Israeli hot spot in Denver, Safta.
“It struck a chord with me, what these refugees go through and how they have found ways to become part of the Denver community and not mask who they are,”says the Israeli-born Shaya. “Comal is special in giving them a platform to do that.” Earlier this year, Alnidawi and Nassr left Safta to launch their own catering business, Zaki Mediterranean Cuisine, while still making time to assist Comal with Impact Dinners.
“After moving here as a refugee, Comal was the bridge that I needed to establish my life in Denver,” says Nassr. “Comal gave me a sense of home, and a better understanding of the community.”
Even after La Cocina’s latest project, Municipal Marketplace, kicked off with $1.5 million from the city of San Francisco and pro bono architectural planning, its director, Linda Esposito, has high hopes for more: “I’d love a piano people could play,” she says with a laugh. It’s about the only note of whimsy in her intensely practical vision for how a food hall in an old post office at one of the city’s most crime-ridden intersections will grow into an active community space and center for affordable, healthy food.
Since opening in San Francisco’s Mission District neighborhood in 2005, La Cocina has served as a model for kitchen incubators around the country—a proven launching pad for culinary businesses run exclusively by low-income-earning women, primarily immigrants and women of color. At its Mission headquarters, La Cocina offers technical training in marketing, finance, and operations as well as commercial kitchen space. While the incubator has turned out 32 brick-and-mortar businesses—including James Beard Award semifinalists Reem’s California, an Arab bakery, and Nyum Bai, a Cambodian street food restaurant, both in Oakland—as well as one cookbook, We Are La Cocina, out in June, finding graduates places to set up new small businesses without sky-high rent has always been a challenge, especially in the face of tech-fueled gentrification.
That’s where La Cocina’s marketplace comes in. The organization has an interim lease on its space in the Tenderloin neighborhood through 2025, when the city will transform the building into affordable housing; till then, it plans to offer entrepreneurs retail space below market rate. Starting this fall, seven La Cocina vendors will offer handmade street-style tacos guisados, posole, Algerian breads and stews, and more from their own market stalls, each of which the organization estimates will pull in around $400,000 in annual sales. Nafy Flatley, who will open a stall at the market this fall, describes the program as a one-stop shop for launching her business, Teranga, which sells baobab juices throughout the Bay Area. When she heard she was selected to be part of the Marketplace, she says she was so happy she “was screaming and jumping and doing a Senegalese dance.”
With the opening of Municipal Marketplace, Esposito hopes that La Cocina can again model a new way to use food to address inner-city issues like poverty and gentrification, but her optimism remains grounded in the reality of the Tenderloin, where the median income is less than half the citywide average. Still, she’s as focused on the locals as on the cooks: Stalls will accept public assistance benefits, such as SNAP, and each day at least one will have a $5 item on its menu. The mission is to bring healthful, affordable food to the neighborhood. But it’s also about creating a new class of restaurateurs: “The grand goal,” says Esposito, “is to help move people from income patching to income generation.”
Kerry Brodie’s great-grandparents fled from Nazi-occupied Lithuania to South Africa during the Holocaust, and her parents later landed in Washington, D.C. “We’ve lived through what happened when we don’t welcome the stranger, and that always weighed heavily on my outlook,” says Brodie, the founder of culinary training program Emma’s Torch. Brodie was working at the Human Rights Campaign and earning her master’s in government when, she says, “I had this crazy idea”: to open a restaurant that would teach professional culinary skills and job readiness to refugees andvictims of human trafficking. She left her job to enroll at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. One year later, in June 2017, Emma’s Torch, named after poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus, opened as a six-month pop-up in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
That initiative was so successful that last May, Brodie was able to raise enough money—including backing from celebrity chef Rachael Ray—to launch a brick-and-mortar location in nearby Carroll Gardens. There, in an airy corner café decorated by Rachael Ray Home designer Michael Murray, 18 students—primarily recruited through homeless shelters and refugee resettlement programs—undergo a three-month boot camp, earning $15 an hour. The first month is devoted to basic kitchen skills, like knife work and recipe implementation, and the second is spent working on the line. In their final month, trainees develop their customer service skills working the concession stand at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch, which Emma’s Torch took over in February, selling bialys and silan butter cake.“There’s a high focus on independence,” Brodie says. “We ensure our students come out with the skills, confidence, and outlook to pursue careers.”
The food at Emma’s Torch draws from a variety of cuisines—recent dishes include shawarma-spiced lamb loin and harissa-roasted chicken—often reflecting the backgrounds of trainees, which include refugees from Pakistan, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Culinary director Alexander Harris, who previously cooked for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, encourages students to cook the food of their homeland as a way to help them feel comfortable in the kitchen. “I always ask, ‘How would you cook this at home?’” Harris says.
Brodie has already developed a network of chef supporters, who help place graduates as line cooks in leading New York restaurants like the Michelin-recommended Houseman and Buttermilk Channel. For Nafisseta Kinda, a trainee from Burkina Faso, Emma’s Torch helped her develop not only technical skills, like how to cook different meats, but also a vision for her future. Long-term, she’d like to “go back to Burkina Faso and open a place that’s similar to Emma’s Torch,” though she also has dreams of opening her own West African restaurant in the States. “People here don’t really understand the nuances in the cuisines of Africa,” she says. “Every country has its own food, its own culture; it’s important to know the differences.”
Through sharing these differences, Brodie says, “we hope we’re changing the conversation. We hope refugees are seen in restaurants not as this amorphous other but as an amazing solution to the labor gap with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. They’re people you wanton your team.”
The Enterprise Center
One recent afternoon at The Enterprise Center (TEC), a small business incubator housed in the former American Bandstand Studio in West Philadelphia, four Iranian women—two sisters-in-law and their adult daughters—stand behind a spread of sweets, offering samples of cardamom-scented cookies and baklava jeweled with pistachios to promote Pardis, their fledgling Persian bakery.
The tasting is part of a showcase for participants in TEC’s food program (known formally as the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises), which offers financial and technical resources to entrepreneurs looking to strike out on their own. “Our Thanksgivings are 35 people, minimum,”says Negar Rafi, a first-generation Iranian-American who helps her mother, Nasrin, who came to the U.S. in 1986, run Pardis. As the women reasoned, why not turn their skills into a business? The family was out looking for retail space when Kim Carter, TEC’s vice president, happened to overhear them discussing the search on the street. She recruited them on the spot to join the center’s culinary program, and three weeks later, they were baking in its commercial kitchen.
Starting a food business in Philadelphia—where average restaurant profit margins currently hover between 4 and 7 percent—is daunting for a well-capitalized white person, let alone for those who are new to the country, speak little English, or lack start-up funds. That’s where TEC comes in. At any given time, its culinary arm is working with 60 entrepreneurs, 70 percent of whom are people of color, and roughly 10 percent of whom are immigrants and refugees. In addition to offering kitchen space, TEC runs the Common Table Fellowship, which offers entrepreneurs a restaurant space where they can test their concepts for up to 10 months at a time (vegan restaurant Spirit First Foods currently occupies the space).
Participants don’t have to look far for inspiration: Next door is 48th Street Grille, a Caribbean and Cajun restaurant run by TEC alumnus Carl Lewis, a Jamaican immigrant who worked in the hospitality industry for four decades before getting the chance to refine his concept through TEC. The Center will also coordinate translators, assist with loan applications, and obtain necessary food service certifications, as it did for Syrian refugee Amina Aliako. In just one year, Aliako went from cleaning toilets as a janitor at Reading Terminal, Philly’s largest indoor market, to selling pickled vegetables, baba ghanoush, and rice pudding there at her own Middle Eastern meze cart. “The language and the paperwork were a challenge,” Aliako says in Arabic, speaking through a translator. “But to have succeeded and reached my goal feels incredible.”
As for Pardis, Rafi and her family are getting closer to finding that retail space. Like fellow TEC alumnus Aliako, the women are in talks to sell their mezes and pistachio-decked sweets at Reading Terminal this summer.