MENU OF OPPORTUNITY
The Town Kitchen delivers sandos and salads,
plus jobs for low-income youth
BY RACHEL TRACHTEN | PHOTOS BY CAROLYN FONG
With lunch-hour delivery fast approaching, a team of young sous chefs busily assembles a row of boxed salads. Chef Jefferson Sevilla, otherwise engaged, looks up mid-sentence, spies a missing ingredient, and utters a brief command—“walnuts!” Erica Miller gets right on it, adding toasted nuts to the greens. Miller, age 22, is one of ten low-income youths employed at the Town Kitchen, an Oakland-based business where entrepreneurship mingles with a powerful social justice mission.
After just a year in business, the Town Kitchen prepares and delivers 300 to 500 boxed lunches to Bay Area businesses weekly, with an additional 250 to 300 catered meals prepared for corporate food broker Zesty. Youth employees are referred by local nonprofits including Beyond Emancipation and Not for Sale, groups that support young people who have been in foster care, lived on the streets, or faced other significant hardships.
Town Kitchen cofounder and CEO Sabrina Mutukisna, just 30 herself, previously worked at the California Teacher Pathway helping youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who were seeking careers in education. She ran a cupcake business on the side. “I loved both worlds,” says Mutukisna, “the food business and the entrepreneurship part of it and also working with young people, connecting them to jobs, and supporting their education.” The base of the idea for Town Kitchen was a question: “How can I merge these two worlds and provide [for youth employees] a meaningful pathway to a four-year degree?”
Mutukisna grew up in Southern California, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants who owned a dry cleaning business. She learned to operate the cash register and helped her parents with accounting and marketing. “Entrepreneurship stuck with me,” she says. Another way she helped was by cooking dinner, since her parents often worked late. She describes teaching herself to cook American food: “I was bad at it in the beginning,” she laughs. “So many things went so wrong.”
Never one to be daunted by challenges, Mutukisna launched the Town Kitchen in 2014 by raising over $40,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. A year later, the business has served more than 12,000 lunches to 125 companies. Mutukisna’s sister Tara, who is COO, and Town Kitchen executive chef Jefferson Sevilla are also cofounders. Sevilla, 32, was born in the Philippines and has been a chef at both Google and SpoonRocket. In the kitchen, he leads his young crew with impressive calm and patience. “Everyone has a different learning curve,” he says of his staff.
Childcare and Bus Fare
According to Mutukisna, the biggest challenge in working with transitional-age youth is communication. “The gap is that one day they might arrive to work and the second day they might not,” she says, noting that between leaving work and returning the next day, youth may face housing instability, community violence, and/or a lack of transportation. “They don’t have money to get on the bus, but they won’t tell you,” she says, and she urges her young workers to be honest about obstacles they’re facing so assistance can be offered.
Case manager Sarah Taylor works directly with the youth on projects such as helping Roger Davalos, 18, get MediCal benefits and apply for financial aid for college. Three employees are parents, so support around childcare is part of making the system work. The goal is to strike the right balance between remaining flexibile with staff needs and assuring that the business is stable and professionally run. So far, with on-site case management, staff turnover has been quite low. Starting pay is $13 per hour, rising to $15 per hour after a two-month probationary period.
What’s for Lunch?
Today’s salad features Bibb lettuce, blue cheese, pomegranate seeds, and toasted walnuts. The menu changes weekly, always offering two meat dishes (one might be fish), a vegetarian choice, and a vegan/gluten-free option. The cost is just $13, including a dessert and a drink from one of Town Kitchen’s artisan food partners. One example: crunchy caramel from Kika’s Treats and iced green tea from Verde Vivo Tea. Through Zesty, Town Kitchen serves clients ranging from GLIDE Memorial Church to Uber. They prioritize local vendors, using organic ingredients when possible, but recognizing that many producers can’t afford organic certification.
Meals are prepped in the Port Kitchen, a shared space in the Kaiser Center Roof Garden overlooking Lake Merritt. The team is almost ready for lunch delivery as employee Rashawn Moore, 22, packs the boxes into large cooler bags. Meanwhile, Miller and Davalos are prepping veggies for the next day’s meals.
Today’s deliveries start at Broadly, an Oakland firm that helps small businesses improve their online presence. Moore sets 23 lunch boxes out on a conference table, and staff members immediately flock over to peek inside. Because Broadly is a regular client, the company’s workers can look forward to monthly bonus treats like cupcakes or ice-cream sandwiches.
These perks are more than just good business—they’re part of building a sense of family with the corporate community. “We want to get to know clients and for them to get to know our students too,” says Mutukisna. Toward this end, Town Kitchen involves clients in volunteer projects. For instance before Thanksgiving 2015 they participated in #HashtagLunchbag with client Pandora on a charitable sandwich-making collaboration.
To promote education and career development, Town Kitchen started the Youth Food Project, a nonprofit in partnership with Oakland-based ISEEED’s Step to College Program. A pilot run last summer trained 14 young people in kitchen skills, food tech, and social media, with case management for extra support and a chance to meet local food entrepreneurs of color as a highlight. The youths held jobs at the Town Kitchen or their partners in this project: Mamacitas Cafe, Mandela MarketPlace, TART! Bakery, Real Food Cup, Red Bay Coffee, Youth Impact HUB, and Hack the Hood.
Next summer, the Youth Food Project will launch as a two-month training program offering a $2000 educational stipend and two units of credit from San Francisco State University. In the meantime, youth employees are branching out beyond the kitchen: Davalos will soon be helping with Instagram, and Moore assists with social media, deliveries, and client follow-up.
Mutukisna hopes the Youth Food Project curriculum will evolve into an open-source model that reaches around the Bay Area and beyond. She anticipates that the program will eventually need to be run by someone else, but admits that passing it along will be bittersweet. “My heart is in education,” she says, “and I’ll definitely teach a portion of that workforce curriculum. But, being a female entrepreneur and a woman of color in the food tech space has been empowering, and I really believe that the Town Kitchen can grow and do amazing things.”
Chef Sevilla shares her enthusiasm for the business they’ve built. “By investing in the youth,” he says, “we can only do good for the future.”