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Dispatches: Kitchen Project Cooks Up New Businesses

El Pajaro CDC will launch a commercial kitchen incubator in Watsonville.

For six years, the Marci Prolo has been cooking small batches of toffee in her Watsonville kitchen.

She sells Goose's Goodies—15 flavors of toffee—through word-of-mouth and at special events, like the Taste of Santa Cruz at the Boardwalk. But growing her business will require bigger batches, which means a bigger kitchen.

That could be a reality for Prolo early next year, when opens its commercial kitchen incubator on Riverside Drive in Watsonville.

The kitchen project, two decades in the making, will provide commercial kitchen space to small businesses, such as bakers, farmers producing value-added products from their crops and Prolo.

"It'll just make it able for me to stay in the Watsonville area and start my business," Prolo said.

The facility is an old tofu manufacturing site that has stood empty since 2005. Situated on the east side of the city where Highway 129 rolls into Watsonville, it's an ideal location for food producers who are shipping product out of town.

"This is a really good project," said Jorge Regurin, president of El Pájaro CDC board of directors.

The new kitchen space will include 10 workstations and a hot food line. Small companies—such as a catering operation or a family-run bakery—can utilize the facility as they need. Carmen Herrera-Mansir, executive director of El Pájaro CDC, said 10-15 food-related operations are on the waiting list for kitchen space.

"We're going to be helping people start businesses," she said.

New employment opportunities are a boom in Watsonville, where jobs blossom, then die off with the strawberry harvest. Off-season unemployment tops 20 percent and with one-third of the city's population under age 18, there is a growing workforce produced by local high schools.

Regurin estimated every organization involved in the kitchen incubator program will create at least two jobs. So if 10 groups are making pickles, baking cookies and catering weddings out of the facility, that's 20 jobs.

"It really makes a big impact," he said. "It's a lot of job creation for a little money."

El Pájaro CDC spent years saving money for the project and has a lease-to-own option on the building. A grant and lots of fundraising will pay for the commercial-grade kitchen equipment.

The front of the building will house the offices and a food distribution area for the Agriculture Land-Based Training Association, or ALBA, a Salinas-based organization that trains people to grow organic crops.

There are about 15 ALBA farmers around Watsonville and Elkhorn Slough, and another 35 in Salinas. Most of their organic produce is purchased by restaurants in Santa Cruz and the South Bay, so creating a distribution point in Watsonville is ideal, according to Alfred Navarro, interim executive director of ALBA. They also will be able to provide produce to cooks in El Pájaro CDC's kitchen, should a need arise.

"This will become a big food complex," Herrera-Mansir said.

"A food hub," Navarro chimed in.

The kitchen also will be open to community groups for educational purposes, like teaching kids about a balanced diet or educating diabetics on how to cook healthier food, according to Herrera-Mansir and Regurin.

El Pájaro CDC and ALBA unveiled the facility at event emceed by Rep. Sam Farr on Wednesday. Some of the entrepreneurs who hope to use the kitchen space catered the event, including Prolo with her flavored toffee.

Wednesday, the building was a caverous industrial facility with wires hanging from the ceiling and disconnected ventilation hoods on the walls. But in about three months, the space will look like the set of a Food Network cooking show, hopefully with Prolo making large batches of mint, peanut butter and white chocolate toffee.

"It's not just space; it's a place for them to develop a business," Herrera-Mansir said.

El Pájaro CDC will hold four orientation sessions about the kitchen program:

  • Watsonville: Oct. 26 in the old Watsonville City Council Chambers, 250 Main St. The meeting will be in English from 6-7 p.m. and Spanish from 7:30-8:30 p.m.
  • Castroville: Nov. 3 in the city library, 11160 Speegle St. Again, the meeting will be in English from 6-7 p.m. and Spanish from 7:30-8:30 p.m.

Call 831-722-1224 for information.

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