Oakland food startup to offer college credit to young employees

on May 7, 2015

The Town Kitchen—an Oakland food startup that employs low-income youth—has graduated from an accelerator program and moved into a brand-new kitchen near Lake Merritt.

The business delivers boxed lunches to customers—mainly companies in San Francisco and Oakland—for about $11 each with a 10-order minimum. Their mission is to use food to create a community in which underserved Oakland youth can work at a living wage, learn from talented chefs and entrepreneurs, and earn college credit.

“A lot of these youth, they already have jobs,” said co-founder and CEO Sabrina Mutukisna. “They drop out of school because they get a job offer and they go off and they’re working.”

To counteract dead-end job syndrome, Mutukisna plans to offer college credit. She’s developing a summer program that will teach culinary and business skills, and the credit will be offered through a partnership with San Francisco State University.

“I can see this being more than a job,” said Isaiah Rivera, 25, a former foster child who aged out of the system and left school. He is now working at The Town Kitchen and said he envisions youth learning to cook for recreation as well as job training. He added, “I can see this really benefitting young people.”

He also said he highly recommends it to young parents. “They’re quick to give chances here,” he said. “It’s a friendly environment. When you come here you can just feel the difference. I love it.”

The new location, Port Kitchens, is a shared working space at 344 Thomas Berkley Way that is expected to house 15 to 30 companies when it is finished. Though the workspaces aren’t completed yet, The Town Kitchen is up and running, with employees standing around a large kitchen island slicing vegetables, and others running in and out for more ingredients. To the side, stacks of empty lunch boxes wait to be filled.

Mutukisna said she began raising money for The Town Kitchen through an Indiegogo campaign last December. The campaign brought in $41,343 to go toward rent and new kitchen equipment. This January, The Town Kitchen was accepted into Tumml, an urban ventures accelerator based in San Francisco, which gave her another $20,000 in seed funding in exchange for a 5 percent equity stake in the new project.

Joining the accelerator also meant being part of a three-month program, where they were offered mentorship and office space. Without Tumml’s mentorship, which included advice from policy experts and successful entrepreneurs, Mutukisna said they couldn’t have launched.

“We started with them in January, and we launched January 12,” Mutukisna said. “So they’ve been with us for nearly every step of the way.”

When the accelerator program ended last month, they moved to Port Kitchens, and Mutukisna said business has continued to grow. So far, they’ve delivered over 4,000 meals, and made about $50,000 in revenue.

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The Town Kitchen employees work for a shared work space at Port Kitchens. Photo by Naomi Nishihara

“We’re growing,” Mutukisna said. “It’s really a question of whether we want to scale quickly, or if we want to take our time. I think the business is ready to go.”

She predicted that the company could be profitable by the end of the year.

“I see us expanding to multiple cities,” said Jefferson Sevilla, co-founder and executive chef.

Sevilla was a sous chef at Google when he met Mutukisna, and later became executive chef at SpoonRocket, before agreeing to create The Town Kitchen. In the food industry, he said, it’s hard to find opportunities to give back to the community. So when one came along, he felt like he should take it.

As executive chef, he manages the menu and helps the young employees create the meals. This week, options range from a barbequed chicken stuffed pita to smoked trout Caesar salad or a spinach salad. Among other things, Sevilla said his job is to help teach the young employees life skills, organization and time-management skills, and proper food safety protocol.

At the moment, Sevilla said he hopes to expand to cities across the West Coast, and then begin migrating east.

“I am so excited about the [business] model,” Mutukisna said. “I think making it a for-profit company is really empowering, not only for me as an entrepreneur, but for the youth employees who will hopefully grow with the business.”

For now, The Town Kitchen has three full-time young employees, and hires more for events and large orders.

The Town Kitchen's signature boxes are piled high in the kitchen. Photo by Naomi Nishihara

The Town Kitchen’s signature boxes are piled high in the kitchen. Photo by Naomi Nishihara

“Everyone is kind of chill. You become friends, like family,” said employee Morgan Ester, 20. “It’s been better than any job I’ve had.”

Brian Zamora, 16, who was Mutukisna’s first employee, agreed, and said watching the business grow has been a cool experience.

“Have you seen the boxes?” he said, referring to stacks of boxes waiting to be filled for a large order. “There are so many boxes.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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