San Fran, CA: Pilot Program Helps Cooks Develop Business Plan

Zahra Bruner (seated left), Yuko Takahashi, Mitsu Nakamura, Still Seville and Gordon Asaoka participated in the first day of the food business skills course. Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

By Stacy Finz |

Zahra Bruner (seated left), Yuko Takahashi, Mitsu Nakamura, Still Seville and Gordon Asaoka participated in the first day of the food business skills course. Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Fernay McPherson would like to turn her part-time venture, Minnie Bell’s Catering company, into a full-time gig.

The problem is that while she can make mouth-watering chicken three ways, she doesn’t know a hill of beans about creating a viable business plan.

Help is on the way.

Urban Solutions, a nonprofit economic development organization, and La Cocina, a group specializing in culinary entrepreneurship for low-income communities, have teamed up to take 35 students, including McPherson, under their collective wing. For the next three months, experts will teach the wannabe capitalists how to run their own mobile food businesses – everything from financial management and marketing to details about getting the proper permits and licenses.

“A lot of our participants are home cooks who have dreams of turning their passion into a career,” said Helen Branham, director of small business services at Urban Solutions. “It could be anything from food trucks and carts to catering and kiosks.”

The course, called the Fillmore Mobile Food Vendor and Artisan Marketplace Program, also includes help with funding for those with a feasible business plan, and consultants who will continue to act as sounding boards well after participants get their mobile businesses rolling.

2nd course possible

The seminar is a pilot program started as part of the Fillmore Economic Development Action Plan and is funded by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development and Wells Fargo. So far, it’s a one-time deal, but organizers are hopeful that if the program is successful there may be funding for a second course in the future.

McPherson, a 33-year-old home-care worker with a culinary school degree, said the course came at just the right time in her life. For two years she’s been running her soul food company in her free time, mostly catering to small private parties and community events.

“So far, it hasn’t been profitable because business isn’t consistent,” she said. “But I’d like to be able to take it to the next level.”

McPherson is considering a catering truck that she could park at festivals and community gatherings, where she could sell her molasses braised short ribs, creamy goat cheese mashed potatoes and fried chicken. She could also use the truck for catering private events.

Nellie Tischler, 36, had already been kicking around the idea of a dosa cart when she enrolled in the course. Dosas are crepes made from rice batter and black lentils stuffed with vegetables or meats and are typically considered street food in Southern India.

Her own research showed that a cart would cost from $3,000 to $7,000 and a grill from $125 to $300. She figured if she parked her cart in the Mission District and sold 10 dosas an hour, four hours a day, six days a week, her profit would be $6,000 per month. Then she could quit her pre-school teaching job. But that is of course, if all the stars align in her so-far fictional business plan. If they don’t, she goes flat broke.

So she’s taking the program for a reality check.

“I don’t come from a business background,” said Tischler, who has been focusing more on making delicious dosas than cooking up complicated profit and loss statements. “So I feel that I’m really in the dark. I’ve been stumbling around asking all kinds of questions. I want to know how to make a business plan, how to get licenses, how to budget. The class has been incredibly informative.”

Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, said home-based food businesses have long been a way for low-income families and immigrants to make a living. The purpose of the program is to make these businesses profitable and legal, including the proper permits and licenses.

Mobile food business

As the economy took a free fall, mobile food businesses and pop-up restaurants became popular around the country – and especially in the Bay Area. It was partly so restaurateurs, who due to the lending crisis no longer qualified for ample funding, could decrease overhead and deliver food to money-strapped customers at lower prices. There are already 220 food carts and trucks permitted to do business in San Francisco, according to the city’s Department of Public Health.

“There is saturation,” Zigas acknowledged. “But there’s always room for a great vendor.”

He said the cost of infrastructure for a truck or cart is significantly lower than a brick and mortar restaurant. It’s the “perfect proof of concept,” he said, adding that a mobile food truck business can launch for as low as $30,000 in start-up costs, or $7,000 for a small cart and $3,000 for permits.

Once the vendor has a proven track record, he or she can start thinking of expanding to a traditional restaurant model.

For Yuko Takahashi, a 38-year-old chef who has enrolled in the program, it’s the perfect compromise. Although her parents are restaurant owners in her native Japan, she can’t afford to lease a store front. Even a truck would be a stretch. For now, a cart seems more her speed. Her concept is to do yakitori bento boxes.

“They’re easy to get on the streets of Japan, but not here,” she said.

Takahashi said for the past 10 years living in the United States she’s always worked for someone else. “But I always felt I was the better business person.”

So she’s putting her knowledge to the test and hopes that by the end of the course she will qualify for one of the program’s loan packages.

“Everything I’ve learned so far has been helpful,” she said. “I’d like to have my cart up and running by early next year.”