Mandela Partners and Foodwise Connect New Entrepreneurs and Farmers Market Community

Brie Mazurek, Staff
October 8, 2021

Pictured above: LoJo’s Tacos.

For Loren Johnson, the upheaval of COVID has been a time of new beginnings. With more than a decade working in restaurants on her resume, she had been considering starting her own food venture for a while, but when she was offered a pop-up at Avedano’s Meats in San Francisco last year, her dream was suddenly kickstarted into a reality.

“The person that owned the butcher shop there was looking for somebody to do a pop-up in the morning during the pandemic,” says Johnson. “I had been thinking about doing breakfast tacos, and once the opportunity arose, I was like, ‘This is a great time to move forward with this.’” Offering a rotating menu of sustainably sourced meat and veggie breakfast tacos, LoJo’s Tacos was born.

Now, through a collaboration between Mandela Partners and Foodwise (formerly CUESA), new Bay Area businesses like LoJo’s Tacos are getting a chance to expand their businesses and reach new audiences at farmers markets in San Francisco.

Pictured below: Rebel Fare.

Nurturing New Businesses in Oakland and Beyond 

Founded in Oakland in 2004, Mandela Partners works with residents, farmers, and local food enterprises to improve health and grow wealth in low-income communities. For new business owners, the nonprofit’s Entrepreneurs Program offers a suite of services, including a 10-week workshop series to help them develop their business plan; one-on-one advising to refine and formalize their business; and market opportunities to test their concept and reach customers.

“A lot of the entrepreneurs we’re working with are BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] entrepreneurs, who traditionally have been marginalized and not as well supported through government programs,” says Jeremy Dutra, Mandela’s Marketing & Outreach Coordinator (and past Foodwise employee). “A big part of what we’re doing at Mandela Partners is reinvesting in these limited-resource communities.”

Mandela supports entrepreneurs in accessing markets through two key ways: their incubator food hall in Ashland (unincorporated Alameda County), known as Ashland Market & Cafe (soon to be rebranded as E14th Eatery + Kitchen); and partnerships with organizations like Foodwise.

Foodwise previously worked with Mandela Partners to provide pop-up booth space for entrepreneurs at the Jack London Farmers Market in Oakland, and earlier this year, they relaunched the partnership in San Francisco. Since July, Foodwise has hosted four businesses for a month or longer, including LoJo’s Tacos and Rebel Fare at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and Pimpin Chkn and Briya Be Cookin at the Mission Community Market.

“Since a lot of the folks we serve are in the East Bay, being able to test their products in a San Francisco context is a new opportunity for them,” says Sabine Dabady, Mandela’s Entrepreneurship Development Coordinator. “And because Foodwise has such a built-in following and customer base, it allows for an easier plug-and-play than trying to drive customers to them.”

Pictured below: Pimpin Chkn.

Pandemic Pivots Pave Way for Opportunities

While the pandemic has been devastating for the food and restaurant industry, forcing thousands of businesses to close and ushering in hundreds of thousands of job losses in California alone, it has also provided opportunities for innovative new food businesses to bloom. While out-of-work chefs and food workers pivoted to launching pop-ups, ghost kitchens, and other models in 2020, applications for new businesses in California rose by 21.7% from the previous year, according data from the U.S Census Bureau.

That growth has been felt at Mandela Partners as its network has expanded during the pandemic, with the workshop program going virtual and reaching a wider Bay Area clientele of chefs and food makers starting their own ventures.

“What we’ve been observing is that the food industry has really been changing over the past year and a half, where maybe a brick-and-mortar isn’t the dream that everyone should be pursuing,” says Dutra. “Popping up at a farmers market like the Ferry Plaza, partnering with a brewery to do a weekly pop-up, or other sales channels can be a business’s main source of revenue, and it becomes sustainable.”

Having grown up with a love of cooking, Elijah Brown worked in fine-dining restaurants and tech kitchens before he lost his job due to the pandemic. The moment forced him to reevaluate, and led to him launching his own fried chicken sandwich business, Pimpin Chkn.

“I started on the corner, thinking super small, just to have it for people in my community,” says Brown. “And then it grew! My community in East Oakland really enjoyed the food, so I just thought about expanding, and here I am.”

Through being a member of Oakland’s Black Food Collective, a kitchen space and support network for Black food entrepreneurs, he was referred to Mandela Partners. Since he was more established than most entrepreneurs entering the program, he was most interested in pursuing new market opportunities.

Popping up at Foodwise’s Mission Community Market provided a chance to get exposure in San Francisco at a venue with a built-in audience. “The market was perfect because I’ve been wanting to do a pop-up in SF for a while. It was just great vibes all around. Every business there was super friendly—very supporting, very community-based, which I definitely value.”

For Loren of LoJo’s Tacos, the experience of popping up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market last July was a positive one as well, and she’s started a second residence at the market during this October.

“Popping up at the Ferry Plaza has been amazing,” says Loren. “I was super nervous at first, but it was really great. A lot of new customers. I think it was around 97% new customers, according to Square. It was fun to revamp my menu a little bit for a larger volume, and also play into the idea of the farmers market and incorporating fresh produce.” She’s now considering her next step for expansion, such as investing in a food truck.

Pictured below: Briya Be Cookin.

Uplifting and Celebrating Entrepreneurs of Color 

As Dutra and Sabady of Mandela Partners point out, farmers markets have historically been predominantly white spaces, overdue for a racial injustice reckoning. “Traditionally a lot of farmers market operators are white-led organizations, and they have not always been welcoming to entrepreneurs of color,” he says. “I think this is an opportunity to begin to break away from that tradition and find space where entrepreneurs of color are able to be uplifted and feel safe and supported.”

While there is much work to do to make farmers markets more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for everyone, the partnership between Mandela Partners and Foodwise is a step toward working to undo that history.

“We’re thrilled to rekindle our connection with Mandela Partners,” says Lulu Meyer, Foodwise’s Director of Operations. “The entire Mandela team shows so much commitment and support for their business partners, and collaboratively we are able to work together to offer technical support, exposure to new audiences, and marketing assistance for local BIPOC-owned businesses.” Such assistance also includes help with permits and fees, which can be a finacial and logistical barrier for new entrepreneurs.

As Mandela and Foodwise look forward to partnering with more innovative BIPOC entrepreneurs at the farmers market in the coming months, it’s the community who benefits from them sharing their talents, passion, and delicious food. And as Dabady notes, community support and representation are key to their success. 

“All of the food producers we worked with in this round of pop-ups were Black,” she says. “Being able to share visions of cuisine by Black food producers really executing the food that they love and enjoy is really critical to folks to be able to see different representations and to engage folks around a different dialogue. That also, hopefully, allows these businesses to grow, thrive, and be sustainable above all. If they’re not sustainable and they can’t thrive, then we’re at square one.”

Stay tuned to Foodwise’s e-letter for announcements about future Mandela Partners pop-ups.

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