Sabrina Mutukisna's background is in education reform and workforce development. Having seen demonstrably increased student success as a Program Coordinator for the San Francisco YouthWorker to Teacher Pathway through San Francisco State University and a Program Manager for the California Teacher Pathway
, Mutukisna knew she wanted to do something based on the cohort model of teaching – which prioritizes collective work and progress and focuses on the importance of community in education – but she also knew from her experience in the education system that the grant-funded nonprofit model is not sustainable.
"A lot of Town Kitchen came out of frustration – we came so
close with Pathway but in the last year we had a third of the budget," says Mutukisna. "Working in the community college system I realized the reason we had higher retention was about students feeling connected to their friends, peers, and employers in the classroom. When we talk about young people having big barriers to entry and employment, we're not talking about the student who has really great connections to family. The Town Kitchen is taking over that role in some ways. Community is really what's important to us. At the same time, we're focused on creating a scalable model and high growth."
Mutukisna grew up in the food service industry, working in restaurants for most of her adult life and feeling passionate about the local food system as well. She even started her own boutique cupcake business on the side while still working in the nine-to-five nonprofit sector.
As Mutukisna toyed with ideas on how to develop a for-profit company that worked in the education and youth development sector using the cohort model, the idea for the Oakland-based Town Kitchen
seemed like a natural fit for her, combining both aspects of her professional passions in an industry with a low barrier to entry that emphasizes skill sets and a work ethic that translates to all other industries and puts students on the path of long-term employability and success.
"Really I think that food naturally builds community and that's really important when we work with young people," she says. "Through the ideation phase we knew we wanted to connect young people in the food industry, but it was also important to create a sustainable model, and the way to do that was through delivery," she says.
The Town Kitchen is a community-driven food company that employs and empowers low-income youth by delivering chef-crafted boxed lunches to corporate clients. It is a for-profit/nonprofit hybrid that is self-sustaining through its for-profit model, which in turn sustains its nonprofit goals.
Mutukisna and co-founders JP Hailer and Jefferson Sevilla launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign last December, and the Town Kitchen was up and running in January.
"We had so much community support," she says. "We really launched the business through crowdfunding. People were volunteering to build the website. So many people rallied around us getting off the ground. That's really the way that everything has happened – so many stakeholders were willing to put time and energy into it."
The for-profit services aren’t merely an afterthought or solely a means to an end, either – boxed lunches are chef-prepared using locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients from local growers, producers, and small-scale food entrepreneurs. Executive Chef Jefferson Sevilla was formerly at Google, and Mutukisna describes their lunches as "Google-style food in that it is locally-sourced but also interesting."
Lunches can be made to accommodate any kind of allergy or dietary restriction and always come with ample vegetarian options. Every week there are four options – two meat and two vegetarian, one of which is vegan and gluten free. All ingredient information is clearly labeled on each package, and the menu rotates every week.
The Town Kitchen also works with local artisan food purveyors. So far they have worked with 40 small food businesses across Oakland and the Bay Area. They cross-promote these businesses on social media and include their contact information with the delivered lunches, so corporate clients can support the local food movement from the convenience of their desks. For two weeks those small businesses are generating revenue from these lunches, after which time those corporate clients who love them can continue buying from them.
"This is meant to really support food businesses throughout Oakland," says Mutukisna.
Since the beginning of 2015, the Town Kitchen has delivered over 12,000 corporate lunches to over 125 clients. They work with major clients that include tech companies, UC Berkeley, and Merrill Lynch.
"We're focused on being a really major component and player in the Bay Area this next year and really delivering that Bay Area market and focusing on a West Coast expansion next year. We really want to have a measureable impact in urban cities as the leader in food delivery, and this goes beyond the tech industry – that’s important to emphasize as we scale to other cities and have them think about corporate responsibilities too."
And, this being the Bay Area and all, it probably goes without saying that advanced app-based tech is a part of it as well – clients can track deliveries in real time, much like riders can track their Uber cars.
So for corporate clients, working with the Town Kitchen is not just a matter of good corporate citizenship – it's also a matter of high quality and Silicon Valley convenience, so companies don't have to sacrifice in order to do a bit of good.
The Town Kitchen employs low-income youth ages 16-24 through referrals from community partners, young people that have multiple barriers to employment: kids coming from singe-parent households, kids who have come out of the foster system, kids who have been incarcerated, kids who are survivors of sex trafficking.
The young workers do all of the food prep under the direction of Chef Sevilla. They also go through sustainable food training, not just working with the Town Kitchen but the organization's partners as well. The students get multifaceted hands-on industry training from Oakland-based food businesses like Red Bay Coffee
, which runs a training segment on coffee roasting, and Mamacitas Café
, a women-owned doughnut and breakfast cafe that creates jobs and provides training for female-identified youth in Oakland, which trains students on front of house management. Various food entrepreneurs will host dinners during training and the students will learn about culture and identity through food and see food entrepreneurship through different perspectives.
"It's important to us to have really high standards as well," says Mutukisna. "The students need to show up on time. They need to communicate. They should never be bored or not working. It's a busy kitchen; they appreciate the structure. It's good for us too – when we think about employees being hirable, a kitchen is about time management times 100 and taking initiative to get the most of your time. Those skills are translatable to every other industry.
'That's why the kitchen is great," she continues. "A lot of times when you put people in internships, if they don't have the skills in the classroom they are not prepared to go into the internship. For them to really learn quickly on the job and check things off as they've mastered them actually sets them up in other industries as well."
On the nonprofit side, the Town Kitchen works in partnership with I-SEEED
on the Youth Food Project
, a workforce and entrepreneurship training program through which they earn degree-track credits at San Francisco State University. Students get 120 hours of training on food entrepreneurship, hands-on skills, front and back of house management, food justice and access, and technical training on social media and basic coding.
"The training is really built collaboratively," Mutukisna explains. "This is not just about creating great Town Kitchen employees but creating great employees throughout Oakland. The idea is really to link workforce to education. We can keep employees happy and employed with a sustainable wage. We want to create a space that's supporting them in multiple avenues and can provide education opportunities too."
They had their first cohort of 14 students this past summer. Their plan is to build out and formalize the training and have 60 students go through the program in 2016, with the intention of launching their workforce programming in other cities in the future, and following that with a Town Kitchen concept in each city.
"Our goal is being high growth and creating a scalable model but also food justice and access," says Mutukisna. "We're really excited to create a model that can grow, but also having workforce development training and tying workforce development to education outcomes. Funders are so weary of funding anything over three years. When we're really talking about employment and job sustainability for youth, we really need to think long-term."