SAN FRANCISCO — La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, which started as a non-profit kitchen incubator, has become the nation's first women-run, immigrant-owned food hall.
"It's a dream come true. I feel so proud especially as a Muslim woman immigrant -- La Cocina gave me the key to open the golden door for my dream," chef Wafa Bahloul told "Good Morning America" about how it feels to finally bring Kayma, her first brick-and-mortar business, to life.
The 7,000-square foot food hall in the heart of San Francisco has a commercial kitchen space and is the workplace of seven talented women of color who have cultivated their culinary craft within the incubator program.
Each entrepreneur serves up authentic global cuisine with nourishing and affordable meals that reflect the diversity of the Tenderloin neighborhood, thanks to La Cocina's partnership with the Office of the Mayor and Tenderloin Housing Clinic and local food security programs and donors.
"It's really unique, we're all in one place and it's like you're traveling in the same day you can go to Algeria and Mexico and Nepal -- it's an amazing thing," Bahloul said.
When she moved to the U.S. nearly six years ago from Algeria, where she grew up and attended culinary school, Bahloul found it difficult to find her footing in the Bay Area food scene.
"I always had a passion for food, and and my mom is a chef, so I grew up being in the kitchen and of course [she] pushed me to take classes and culinary school. But when I came I here I didn't know where to start," she said.
While working across the bay at an Indian restaurant in Emeryville, the chef and owner suggested Bahloul check out the La Cocina program.
"They help you learn how to run every side of the business. I love to cook and have a passion for that and all the capacity, but that doesn't mean you know how to run a business. La Cocina gave me that push and support," Bahloul said.
Two years later, Bahloul runs her own place with her husband and serves halal North African food. A bestseller is her tasty chicken bowl with couscous, veggies and sauce.
"It's exciting for me to wake up and realize I have this place," she said. "We are all women and each of us is special. I'm so proud. I feel strong and happy to share our force all together. There is just something so special and we support each other."
Other businesses in the marketplace are: Boug Cali, a Creole bodega by chef Tiffany Carter, Estrellita's Snacks from Salvadoran chef Estrella Gonzalez, Los Cilantros a Mexican restaurant by chef Dilsa Lugo, Mi Morena by Mexican chef Guadalupe Moreno, Terenga, a Senegalese/Pan-African concept by chef Nafy Flatley and chef Bini Pradhan's Nepalese joint, Bini's Kitchen.
"We serve healthy food and all the businesses have to have a $5 meal to help the community around us," Bahloul said of the accessible options that are available for EBT transactions via the California Restaurant Meals Program. "I use Algerian olive oil and harissa, but I do my best to provide good, fresh food and yes, it's expensive but it doesn't mean I can't provide it. I have to give it my Algerian touch."
Local restaurant owner, chef and entrepreneur Jay Foster acts as the municipal marketplace manager, while Naomi Maisel helms the community partnerships and food justice advocacy. Together they work with Tenderloin organizations and residents to engage with the community and oversee the space.
"This is La Cocina's most ambitious project yet, and we're opening after a tumultuous year that has rocked our community," Foster said. "We're moving forward with optimism and excitement to activate this space in a way that safely enables these talented entrepreneurs to build their businesses and feed the Tenderloin community at a critical time."
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