Arlington, VA

(Updated at 2 p.m.) Arlington’s culinary school La Cocina is planning to add a cafe and a business incubator — as well as triple the number of students it teaches.

The bilingual non-profit donates healthy meals and trains Hispanic immigrants for culinary jobs. But now La Cocina is planning to move from the basement of a church near Ballston to a 5,000-square-foot space in the affordable Gilliam Place housing development at 3507 Columbia Pike, where the organization’s CEO and Founder Patricia Funegra says La Cocina will help residents cook up new businesses.

“We call it the zero-barriers training and entrepreneurship center,” Funegra told ARLnow today. “The new center will triple our capacity.”

For the last two years, she said she’s worked to raise money ($2.5 million so far) for the new space where La Cocina will continue training residents for culinary jobs — but also rent out its kitchen space and offer micro-lending to low-income entrepreneurs looking to start their own food businesses.

Funegra says the plan is also to launch a “pop-up cafe” with space for 40 seats where these burgeoning business owners can sell their offerings.

Also planned for the new space is an in-house catering business to help pull in revenue for the nonprofit.

The kitchen space itself will include six to eight prep tables and industrial ovens, fridges, and a walk-in freezer. All together, she hopes to quadruple the number of students a year from around 30 to 120.

“We are moving from a workforce development nonprofit in the food service to becoming producer of food,” Funegra said of the ambitious plans. “So there is some learning process we are going through as well.”

Funegra also hopes the new location on Columbia Pike will also allow Cocina to better reach low-income individuals who need access to healthy meals. She said the organization’s existing food donation program has given out 12,000 such meals, but they hope to give out 40,000 in the new location thanks to the bigger space and larger staff.

Currently, Cocina employs six full-time staffers. It now plans to hire another six come January, including cooks, a manager of operations for the cafe and catering service, and a social worker.

“Mental health issues, and rent and food — all these different challenges that our clients face we know will be better managed through social work,” said Funegra, who added the goal was to “eliminate” barriers people faced when trying to access good food and jobs.

Helping offset the cost is the Virginia Community Capital (VCC) public-private partnership, which is loaning $300,000 to the nonprofit for the construction of its new home.

“La Cocina is empowering those who are underserved by the labor market to forge their own path within the food industry,” said VCC’s Manager of Small Business Lending Zachary Petry in a statement last week. “It’s a sustainable approach to workforce development and job creation, and the facility we provided financing for will advance their effort.”

Construction on the space in the first-floor of Gilliam Place is slated to start tomorrow (Wednesday), and is expected to last until March 2020. However, to make the space a reality, Funegra notes Cocina will have to raise an additional $2 million by April.

Funegra said she was optimistic about the goal, and excited about how a revamped Cocina could serve the community.

“This should make every Arlingtonian proud because it’s the first model of its kind of the whole region that concentres, in a very comprehensive way, all the services that our clients need,” she said.

La Cocina previously received a $75,000 state grant to improve its Ballston space, and design a culinary competition. And earlier this year, FOX 5 and Easterns Automotive Group raised $1,000 to buy new pots and recipe books for the nonprofit.

Over the years, 110 students have graduated from the training center, according to its website, and the current space in the basement of the Mount Olivet Methodist (1500 N. Glebe Road) has attracted visits from several local politicians over the years.

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