2011 Small Business Awards

The Guardian's annual small business awards celebrate the entrepreneurs who keep this city lively

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The La Cocina crew: Daniella Sawaya, Natalie Conneely, Caleb Zigas, Margarita Rojas, and Matt Skov
PHOTO BY BEN HOPFER

Everyone loves to talk about the value of small business. There's a National Small Business Week, proclaimed by the president, and San Francisco Small Business Week, proclaimed by the mayor. There are conferences and speakers and programs. Even the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce — the mouthpiece for giant corporations in town — periodically hails the value of the little entrepreneur.

But when you get right down to it, small businesses don't have it easy in this town. Under siege from big chains (who often get their way at City Hall), faced with unfair tax burdens (the little operators pay the same rate as the biggest companies), struggling to find support from banks (many of which don't make many small business loans), the companies that create most of the new jobs in the city and preserve the lively character of the neighborhoods ultimately get little respect.

Check it out: if Twitter — worth billions — wants a tax break, City Hall leaps to the rescue. Yet a proposal that would have made the business tax burden more fair for small companies died last year without a vote.

Once a year we celebrate the people who hang in there, often against the odds, and not only survive but thrive. People who build small businesses that build cool neighborhoods and hire local workers and keep the San Francisco economy moving.

This year we've combined our editors' picks with readers' choices — and we've asked our winners who they would have picked as the best small businesses of the year. It's a wonderful lineup that looks, and feels, like San Francisco. (Tim Redmond)

 

ARTHUR JACKSON DIVERSITY IN SMALL BUSINESS AWARD

LA COCINA

Believe it or not, there was a time in this city when Le Truc did not park its chicken parmigianas in front of the Conservatory of Flowers and street food did not inspire a weekly mob scene at Off The Grid's mobile market. Back then, a lot of the people who sold food on the street were immigrant women.

"Their commonality is this incredible entrepreneurial spirit," says Caleb Zigas of La Cocina, a food business incubator created to give street food vendors the tools they need to take their business into the next realm of profitability.

Its program has proven highly successful. After taste tests of applicants' proposed cuisine ("They wouldn't be here if their product wasn't good," Zigas says. La Cocina participants are counseled on brand development and distribution. In the organization's gleaming commercial kitchen in the Mission District, eight businesses can simultaneously work at one time. On a typical morning, it's used to prepare hummus, huaraches, and traditional Yucatecan-Mayan food for a day of sales.

Some graduates, like Clairessquares — a chocolate-shortbread-caramel treat company started by the eponymous Irish immigrant — are local grocery store constants now. Some businesses have used the program to go from selling at farmers markets to owning a restaurant of their own — Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco will be the first La Cocina grad with a brick and mortar location, opening in Larkspur this year. Two years ago, La Cocina started the Street Food Festival, an event that consistently packs the streets where it occurs and this year plans to expand to nine blocks of vendors.

Entrepreneurs from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Japan, El Salvador, and Mexico have passed through the La Cocina program. Everyone on staff speaks English and Spanish (the languages the organization offers counseling in). Outreach is done through partnerships with other groups like the Women's Initiative and the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center.