When COVID-19 changed life in California as we know it, Rima Barkett had to pivot. The Bella Vista owner had recently started a new incubator program aimed at helping entrepreneurs start businesses in the food industry using a 5,000 square foot commercial kitchen. But with COVID shuttering restaurant doors, most of her entrepreneurs weren’t comfortable launching a new food biz quite yet. While Bella Vista was forced to shutter its own doors due to the pandemic, the commercial kitchen and mentor program was able to go on thanks to some creative re-planning. With a six chefs looking to learn the ins and outs of business, an otherwise unusable workspace, and a city full of hungry people, Rima’s incubator program became something even better for the community.
Known simply as the Stockton Community Kitchen, Rima asked the program’s six entrepreneurs to make meals three times per week for those in need. With their help and her foundation’s budget, she was able to pay some of the incubator members for their work—many who lost their jobs soon after the pandemic hit. After more months than Rima had planned for, a community grant came through to expand the program to a five-days-per-week meal service available to Stockton residents in need, plus a weekend box of fruits and vegetables to take home on Fridays.
“It started with families but then we felt the need of also feeding the homeless,” Rima says of the efforts. It didn’t take long before the small group was feeding hundreds of residents per week, finding those in need through El Concilio, Child Abuse Protection Council, and churches in South Stockton. Friends of the entrepreneurs volunteered to deliver meals, and homeless people soon became part of the receiving population, giving them a place to safely receive food without risking their health to step into a soup kitchen.
While the Stockton Community Kitchen serves meals such as BBQ riblets with mac n’ cheese, and vegetables and sweet and spicy chicken with rice, carrots, zucchini, and cabbage, to those who have been hit with additional hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic, the entrepreneurs are still learning the skills needed to open a food business including budgeting, ordering, portions, and more, while also gaining the capital, market access, and business experience the program was created to provide. “The incubator is not like a two month program. We work with them for years until they are able to have a successful business,” Rima says.