2011 Small Business Awards - Page 3

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

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

Kate Sofis is quick to tell you that she only held "one nonprofit job" prior to her work with SFMade, San Francisco's local manufacturers association. The real root of Sofis' passion lies with the manufacturing world. It's not surprising — she's seen the sector shape communities.

Raised in 1970s Buffalo, N.Y., where manufacturing was seriously struggling, Sofis later found herself drawn to studying Japanese quality practices in college. After graduation, she ran production lines for high tech companies. "I worked with Apple during the first iMac production runs on Folsom," she says. She was also there for Apple's first outsource.

Later she worked with a small South San Francisco furniture manufacturer ("back when we were still making furniture in this country.") that eventually folded. Sofis realized that although she wanted to work in manufacturing, she wanted even more for there to be a manufacturing sector to work for.

"There were no programs set up," she says, sitting in SFMade's office space within the TechShop building on Howard Street. "You couldn't get a bank loan because no one believed it was possible to actually make money in small manufacturing." Sofis knew that manufacturing created decently-paying, high-skilled jobs with good benefits. At the same time, she understood that it needed to define its identity in 21st century America — and stand up for its sector's health.

Today, the year-and-a-half-old SFMade has grown to include 150 San Francisco manufacturers — from Anchor Brewing to mid-Market garment shops, to Home Kombucha and Rickshaw Bags. May 21-27, it will sponsor SFMade Week, chockfull of local shopping events and "open factories" tours of members' production areas.

The group advocates for ways to make its members' economic contribution tenable in one of the most expensive cities in America. Sofis and other staff work to establish lines of communication to City Hall around issues like improved public transportation in areas where a lot of manufacturing gets done. "If the mattress coil spring guy is late, guess what? Mattresses don't get made," she say. But equally salient is its work on raising awareness among consumers and policymakers that San Francisco manufacturing still exists — and in the age of artisanal products, has the capacity to grow.

Her small business award pick: Greg Markoulis, manager of the American Industrial Center. "Twenty-five percent of our companies are located there, and they're there for the long haul. Without that asset. San Francisco wouldn't have half the manufacturing it does." (Donohue)

SFMade, 926 Howard, SF. www.sfmade.org




Virginia "The Tamale Lady" Ramos. Photo by Ben Hopfer

Virginia "The Tamale Lady" Ramos has been selling her own homemade tamales since 1993, when she started her business to make enough money to send her daughters to school. She didn't expect to become a local legend. Selling bar-to-bar to hungry boozehounds ever since, she's made a name for herself as one of the city's most celebrated street food vendors.

Hungry? Current tamale varieties include chicken, pork, chile cheese, sweet potato black bean, and mixed vegetable. Although Ramos' prices have gone up since the early 1990s, they're still a bargain — $4 for a hefty handful of home-cooked masa and filling, delivered right to your bar stool.