This week voters in Watsonville overwhelming rejected Measure T. It would have opened the door for the city to annex land along highway 1 for development. City officials hoped the development would help address Watsonville’s high unemployment rate. Meanwhile there’s another project underway trying to tackle that unemployment problem. It’s a commercial kitchen incubator designed to help micro entrepreneurs launch local food businesses.
The echo of Carmen Herrera-Mansir’s voice reflects the enormity of the new commercial kitchen incubator on east Riverside Drive in Watsonville. She walks through the more than 8,000 square foot facility with Jorge Reguerin. They point out gleaming stainless steel sinks, refrigerators and just about any appliance one would need to run a food business. Herrera-Mansir is the Executive Director of El Pajaro Community Development Corporation, Reguerin is Board President. The non-profit promotes entrepreneurship by helping people in the tri-county area start, expand and formalize small businesses. “About 40% of the clients that come to seek assistance are people looking to start a food based business so that was one of the reasons to make this new project happen,” said Herrera-Mansir.
This near half-million-dollar project was paid for by federal grants, community donations and a low interest loan that will be repaid by renting the kitchen by the hour to up to fifteen businesses at a time. This kitchen removes one of the biggest obstacles in starting a food business: finding or building a facility that meets strict food and safety regulations. “So their likelihood of success is greater because they don’t have to have such a huge investment,” said Reguerin.
Amelia Rojas is one of those future business owners hoping for success. At her home in Salinas she sets up a vibrant display of fruit on a stainless steel countertop. The business she’s developing is called Fruit Works. As she cuts up a fresh papaya, she explains how she’ll have a mobile fruit cart where she’ll chop made-to-order fruit cups. Customers will pick the fruit they want and can order it plain, as a yogurt parfait or with lemon and chili. “I’m trying to promote healthier ways of eating out when you’re out,” said Rojas. Rojas plans to use the kitchen incubator for prepping the fruit. After more than a decade in retail, she hopes this business is the key to becoming her own boss and to a different life for her family. “Not just be a paycheck by paycheck. I want to have the luxury to take my kids out more often,” said Rojas.
Rojas is one of sixty people on the waitlist to use the kitchen. This early interest in the project gives Fabian Guzman hope for its success. He’s with the City of Watsonville, which helped with the project’s construction management. “Economic activity creates economic activity. When a new food processor starts their work, they will hire people, purchase products, purchase packing and purchase equipment,” said Guzman. Back at the Commercial Kitchen Incubator, Jorge Reguerin sees this project as a step toward lowering Watsonville’s high unemployment rate. At nearly 24%, it’s more than double the state average. He points to a baker who started his business with the help El Pajaro CDC. “He created a job for himself, for his wife. The son was doing some deliveries, and now they just hired a second delivery driver, so with very little money they’ve created four jobs,” said Reguerin. When the kitchen incubator opens next month, there will be room for everyone on the waitlist to rent space and time.