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El Pájaro CDC: Giving Great Ideas a Good Start

Member Sponsor Award
Santa Cruz County Bank El Pájaro CDC

$27,725 AHEAD Grant

Santa Cruz Community Credit Union El Pájaro CDC

$39,000 AHEAD Grant


Quick Mexican Mole Sauce. Healthy Gummy Bears. Green Waffles. El Pájaro Community Development Corporation’s commercial kitchen incubator, currently housing more than two dozen independent enterprises, is cooking up a lot of good things in Watsonville, California. 

Cesario Ruiz is the Facility Manager for the kitchen, where he also produces My Mom’s Mole, a powdered version of the traditional sauce that can be mixed with water or stock and be ready to use in about an hour. “I always had a strong connection with food and cooking,” Ruiz says. When his mother made mole when he was growing up in Mexico, it would take three days. With extensive experience in the food industry, one day he decided he was going to start a business based on his mom’s mole recipe. “I thought it was just that easy to start a business,” he laughs. “Luckily, I found El Pájaro.”

Since 1979, El Pájaro CDC has been working to promote equal access to economic opportunity and transform lives through entrepreneurship in underserved communities in three counties on California’s Central Coast. The organization is headquartered in Watsonville, where unemployment rates are twice the national average and many people are living below the poverty line. 

“The people who come to us have the drive and the knowledge about what they want to do, they just don't know how to do it.”
Amy Mascareñas, Outreach and Business Development Specialist, El Pájaro CDC

For El Pájaro’s Executive Director Carmen Herrera-Mansir and Outreach and Business Development Specialist Amy Mascareñas, the clients who come to the El Pàjaro are a major untapped resource for exponential regional growth. Amy develops the training programs. “I love the process, to see clients evolve,” she says. “The people coming to us have the drive and knowledge about what they want to do, they just don’t know how to do it.” Yet. 

Since California is a well-known hub for specialty food products, especially healthy artisan products, it’s not surprising that many of the good ideas that bring entrepreneurs to El Pájaro are edible, which provided the impetus for creating the Commercial Kitchen Incubator. Emerging entrepreneurs can use the kitchen to produce their products in a space that has all the necessary health permits and meets stringent food safety requirements. The need for space that met those requirements is what brought The Green Waffle maker Martín Madriz to the kitchen. “They had their great recipe idea, but were working out of a space that didn’t comply,” Carmen says. With access to facilities and professional advice, it’s possible to grow his production and distribution capabilities. 

To help get the kitchen up and running, El Pájaro received its first Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco AHEAD grant, $27,725, through Santa Cruz County Bank. The facility had been vacant for seven years and needed all kinds of leasehold improvements. “The AHEAD grant was really helpful because we had to bring a lot of things up to code, and that’s expensive,” notes Jorge Reguerin, VP, SBA and B&I Lending with Santa Cruz County Bank, and a member of El Pájaro’s board of directors. 

“This is not for someone who wants a hobby, it’s about being serious about jobs.”
Carmen Herrera-Mansir, Executive Director, El Pájaro CDC

“So far,” Reguer continues, “We’ve seen folks with good ideas but very limited resources come and open up really viable, vibrant businesses. They can realize their dreams and at the same time create jobs for other people.” Currently, 26 businesses are operating out of the El Pájaro kitchen, and the average number of jobs created by each business is four. “This is not for someone who wants a hobby, it’s about being serious about jobs,” Carmen Herrera-Mansir explains.

For kitchen user Seth Kincade, who takes a pharmaceutical approach to producing nutrient dense snack bars and healthy gummy bear candies under the brand Radicle Nutrition, one of the most satisfying parts of building his own business is being able to employ, train, and mentor women participating in SmartHire, a subsidized job training program. Most of the women Seth has on his team are single mothers with young children. It’s a win-win for Seth and the workers, since the labor subsidies are like cash flow into the business and the women are learning valuable new skills. “As we build our business, we can help them with their long-term job strategies,” Seth says. “I love my team. These are great people, and this job can be a ladder in their lives.” 

The kitchen is just part of what helps put these entrepreneurs on the path to success. “What’s very valuable is that we have created a community of people working together, and that by coming here they can get connected to many resources and programs,” Carmen says. With the success of the incubator, El Pájaro is looking to help more local entrepreneurs of all kinds with its new Empresari@ Program, which will combine many of their existing  programs and add new components, like social media, into a 5-week business training course. To recruit participants, they are planning to host an annual multicultural conference targeting low-skilled, low-income emerging entrepreneurs on the Central Coast. 

Through member Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, El Pájaro received a second AHEAD grant of $39,000 that will help to launch the Empresari@ Program and also support the hiring of a Spanish-speaking instructor for food safety and other business topics. According to SCCCU CEO Beth Carr, they chose to support El Pájaro CDC because they are a long-time community nonprofit with a mission that aligns with that of the credit union. “They are unique and innovative in helping people with great ideas start a small business and become self-sustainable business owners,” she says. “We are proud to be their AHEAD sponsor.”

“It feels really good to be in a place where I can be of help to someone who is struggling, providing tools for their success.”
Cesario Ruiz, Facility Manager and Food Entrepreneur

Helping Seth, Martin, and others navigate the same sort of challenges he has faced with his food venture is very rewarding for Facility Manager and mole-maker Cesario Ruiz. “Because I was the first client who went through the process of learning about permits and all that,” Cesario explains, “It feels really good to be in a place where I can be of help to someone who is struggling, providing tools for their success.”

Planning is underway to build a small-batch co-packing production line that will enable El Pájaro’s food entrepreneurs to access bigger markets by producing in volume, the next step for entrepreneurs who want their business to become an asset for the future, as Carmen sees it. “It’s how they will graduate from the incubator phase,” Carmen says. “Not by building their own kitchen, but by being able to produce their products in volume.” Carmen’s own parents were microentrepreneurs who worked together to build a small business that ultimately put nine children through college. “So I know what is possible,” she says. “I believe in what we do to support economic and social mobility.”