Photo: Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2021

Breaking Down Barriers to Food Entrepreneurship to Connect Us Beyond Our Differences

By Elizabeth Frame Ellison

The writer is president and CEO of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation.

TULSA, United States (IDN) — As Oklahoma is poised to resettle nearly 2,000 Afghan refugees in the near future, it is more important than ever to welcome newcomers who are fleeing war, poverty, trauma and many other hardships. That is why the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation (LTFF) and its associated businesses, made the decision to sign the Businesses for Refugees Pledge.

It’s our commitment to uplift the voices and experiences of refugees, engage in dialogue, offer inclusive policies and practices and, overall, to create a welcoming and inviting environment for the new people calling Tulsa and Oklahoma home.

We are the first entity in the state of Oklahoma to sign the pledge, and I hope to see more businesses follow suit.

Rooted in the inherent belief that food brings people together and is central to supporting families, communities and diverse cultures, LTFF began its journey to provide food entrepreneurs with equitable opportunities for success in 2016 with the launch of Kitchen 66, our food entrepreneurship program.

In 2018, we launched Oklahoma’s first nonprofit food hall, Mother Road Market, recognizing that entrepreneurs need a physical space to launch concepts with fewer risks and a critical mass of local business to bring customers into the space.

We have expanded programs to support retail businesses through Shops at Mother Road Market and Limited Time Only pop-up shops at Mother Road Market. We are now home to diverse retail concepts ranging from a pet supply shop, a wellness boutique, a kiosk featuring Black-owned businesses and a boutique focused on Latinx culture through food, gifts and the best Mexican cookies around!

We are working to break down barriers through innovative, strategic and long-lasting techniques for underestimated people, including immigrants, people of colour, women and, now, refugee populations.

Kitchen 66 recently launched the tenth cohort of its biannual food incubator launch program. During the four-month program, participants are currently learning the skills to run a business, from marketing to hiring to regulations.

This class represents unique Global South cuisine, including a Chicano Eatery: bringing traditional Mexican recipes with an Okie touch, to Argentine-style empanadas sold frozen for people to enjoy at home.

The program has served more than 150 businesses, including immigrants from 10 countries. More than half of Kitchen 66 entrepreneurs are women, and recent alumni have represented Guyana, Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador, Canada, Vietnam, the United Kingdom and Ghana.

Language was one of the largest barriers to participation in Kitchen 66 programming over the last five years. With the help, support and guidance of many community members and partners, we recently started Cocina 66 for Spanish-language food entrepreneurs.

By allowing food entrepreneurs to learn, conceive, test and ideate in their native language, they can more easily learn the skills necessary for growth and create a long-lasting sustainable business.

All members of the inaugural Cocina 66 cohort are first-generation immigrants and include participants from Mexico and Venezuela. The innovative food concepts include Venezuelan gourmet hamburgers, a Latin bakery, Peruvian cuisine, posole, birria and healthy Hispanic food.

Participants in our English and Spanish-speaking programs are learning all aspects of running a business in addition to being provided space to test their concepts before they invest in their own brick-and-mortar shops, food trucks, festivals or packaged-good sales.

They are able to gain valuable community feedback while keeping costs at a minimum and gaining recognition for their work. Kitchen 66 also operates the Kitchen 66 Takeover Cafe, Landmark Food Truck and Kitchen 66 General Store at Mother Road Market, which are platforms used as sales and distribution opportunities for members of the program.

Food entrepreneurship uplifts individuals and connects people from diverse backgrounds. We witness first-hand how food transcends boundaries and cultural differences.  One of my favourite success stories is Carla Meneses, who grew up in the Highlands of Ecuador.

She moved to Tulsa with her husband and children in 2012 and joined the inaugural class of Kitchen 66 in 2016. She started with chicken and beef empanadas in the pop-up kitchen and then tested different flavors to see what people wanted. She added a vegetarian option, and now serves 16 flavours of empanadas.

She credits Kitchen 66 with helping her adapt to her new country and its unfamiliar laws, regulations and customers. She now owns a successful brick-and-mortar shop called Que Gusto in downtown Tulsa. She loves to share her culture, identity and history with people through her food, and even imports some ingredients from Ecuador for her famous Colada Morada during Día de los Difuntos.

It’s stories like Carla’s that show why Kitchen 66 and Cocina 66 are so valuable in our community.

A recent analysis of Census data shows that Tulsa is a new majority minority city, something we embrace and appreciate. The diversity in Tulsa has resulted in a booming global cuisine, and a place for equitable and inclusive experiences. But our research shows there is more progress to be made.

We are focusing on Tulsa as a unique place, and through intensive and strategic study and investments, have helped develop the Tulsa Market District in Oklahoma’s second-largest city, highlighting this unique stretch of the famed Mother Road. Our research revealed that Route 66 is an underappreciated destination in Tulsa and that nearly 20% of residents in the District live at 50% below the poverty line, earning a median household income of $16,764.

To further support underestimated entrepreneurs, we recognized an opportunity to build an inclusive destination district that will increase economic activity, creating an equitable and diverse business community within a qualified census tract along an underutilized Tulsa asset: Route 66.

Through a public-private partnership with the City of Tulsa, LTFF will advance fund $7 millions of necessary public improvements that will update infrastructure and create pride of place through beautification for the Tulsa Market District.

When construction is complete, the Tulsa Market District will have better water and sewer service, street lights and native plants and trees to help improve the quality of life for residents and businesses living in the district.

Alongside the other property owners and shoppers in the District, LTFF will continue to pay property and sales tax to fund education, infrastructure, tourism and bolster the growth of small business.

Today, the Tulsa Market District is a growing community of local artists, makers, and foodies on Route 66, and we are proud that Mother Road Market has helped fuel that growth. Our community is more diverse than ever, and we are eager to welcome the traditions of our newest residents.

Through a focused investment in the Tulsa Market District, business training and resources, and affordable options to physically operate their businesses, our programs are helping underrepresented entrepreneurs and decreasing barriers to building generational wealth.

I’m happy to report that many merchants who started at Kitchen 66 and Mother Road Market have expanded operations locally and in the Tulsa Market District, as well as regionally and nationally.

Food incubators are popping up all over the U.S., but our programs – operating from the middle of the country and in a conservative state – can serve as a model for how to operate an inclusive program. We believe food, artisans and makers are the great unifier, and we are excited to welcome our newest residents who are now calling Tulsa home. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 November 2021]

Photo: Meet the Makers – The graduation event for Kitchen 66’s Launch Program. Pictured is Spring 2021 graduate Sharlyn Pierce, owner of The Daily Chew. Credit: Valerie Wei Haas

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