Richmond center helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality

Savory aromas of ropa vieja – the “old clothes” of slow-cooked pulled stewed beef with bell peppers, garlic and onion — often float from the kitchen space at Co-Biz in Richmond. Here is where chef Yaqueline Martinez prepares traditional criollo aboriginal Cuban food, each dish coming with a side of deep gratitude from the chef for the “road of blessings” she’s received along the way.

Her business, Yaqueline y Su Sabor Cubano, was just a dream for the Cuban immigrant a decade ago, but it became a reality thanks in large part to small-business training and support from Richmond’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. The organization not only helped her get started with a business plan, licensing and social media presence for catering large and small events, but also helped her pivot during the pandemic and continue to thrive by providing family meals and delivery services.

“I am so very grateful to so many people at Renaissance,” Martinez said during a recent Zoom interview from her home, her bright smile shining through the computer screen.

Indeed, Renaissance provides business courses and support services for people who face barriers to economic opportunity, helping them break the cycle of poverty by starting and growing their own small companies. Launched in 1985, Renaissance’s four centers serve more than 1,500 Bay Area residents annually.

The center has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves disadvantaged residents in the East Bay. Donations will help support 41 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The grant will be used to support the organization’s new E-Commerce course in English and Spanish. The course helps clients set up an online business model — necessary to survive during the pandemic.

For Martinez, cooking is a “living art” and it transports her back to her humble beginnings in Cuba, she said. Yet, surprisingly, she didn’t cook while she was growing up – her mother prepared all the traditional dishes. As a young adult, Martinez trained as a computer technician. It was a good job, but the family faced many challenges and Martinez and her husband, musician Juan Stable, crossed Panama and Mexico in 2009 to come to the U.S.

Once here, Martinez had intended to continue working with computers, but she had problems transferring her credentials. And when she went for job interviews, “I saw younger people coming in with bigger degrees,” she said. She struggled to find work while simultaneously learning English and raising her first son.

During that first year in America, Martinez threw a birthday party for her husband. Despite a few glitches, the party helped plant the seed for her new career.

“We didn’t have work and had really little income, so the people we invited — 100 people — all brought (ingredients) over so I could cook a traditional Cuban meal. But I didn’t know a lot about the kitchen then, so I actually started a fire!” she said, laughing.

Still, everyone loved her cooking and devoured every bite, encouraging her to go into the food business. She soon began practicing special dishes and around 2012 she started selling food at the farmers market in Berkeley and flea markets around the East Bay.

But it wasn’t until 2017 that she really started to formalize her business. She came upon Renaissance Entrepreneurship rather accidentally, when a friend took her to a class she thought was about improving her credit, but it turned out to be a business course taught by Viridiana Ponce for Renaissance.

“Viri started to show me how to take my business to the next level,” Martinez said. “This helped me to think about my next steps. This is how my adventure started.”

“Yaqueline became one of our most diligent clients, completing our business planning courses, specialized workshops and several hours of personalized consulting,” Ponce said. “We talked about visualizing your business and examples of how to use these business models, converting ideas into a concept.”

Martinez was hooked and began taking every course she could at Renaissance, including a 10-week business planning course while also taking English classes at Laney College. Later that year, she was invited to participate in Renaissance’s annual marketplace event to showcase her business.

“It was pretty impressive for that to happen, because usually they invite people who’ve been in the program much longer,” Ponce said. “Yaqueline had only been involved a short time. So it really demonstrated how far she’d come.”

In 2018, Martinez worked with her Renaissance coaches to get her business license and catering permit. They helped her apply for a start-up loan, find a commercial kitchen from which to cook, create a website, develop a social media following and grow her clientele. By 2019, the business was thriving. Martinez and her husband were thrilled to share the Cuban culture — with Martinez’s food accompanied by her husband’s band Sentimiento y Manana playing at catering events.

Then 2020 came along and the pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown hit.

“Yaqueline was directly impacted,” Ponce said. “The commercial kitchen she was using closed. She had been doing big events, and popup events. So with COVID, she was not able to do that.”

But with help from Renaissance, Martinez was able to develop a new line of revenue, coming up with individual and family meals and allowing the business to bloom again.

“All these factors, the consultants I’ve worked with – I am so grateful. This business, this food, is a tribute to my mother and sharing my culture with the Bay Area,” she said. “Without Renaissance, it would have been impossible.”

Share the Spirit

The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, funds nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making grants or contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-472-5760 or [email protected].

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