Oakland’s The Town Kitchen is a visionary collaboration between local entrepreneurs and chefs, and underserved and low-income youth. Young adults are trained in culinary skills, given fair-wages, and can take college classes while working for the kitchen. They create over 2,500 community lunch boxes per week, sourced locally and delivered to companies and organizations. I visited with co-founder Sabrina Mutukisna at their headquarters by Lake Merritt:
24 East: What was the motivation behind founding The Town Kitchen?
Sabrina Mutukisna: The Town Kitchen began with Jefferson Sevilla (co-founder and executive chef) and me, really as a conversation about community, and about food and sustainable business. Earlier than that, I had worked in workforce development in San Francisco and Oakland. For eight years, I worked in workforce development with young people. One thing that was a major frustration was just that there wasn’t any sustainability, so you would employ young people for a few months, and a lot of grant programs, while well-intentioned, would run out. Students would get really great support for 6 months or a year, and then there was no place for them to go. I was always passionate about food and loved that food created community.
24E: Did you start doing work in the food industry before you did work with youth?
SM: I grew up in the food industry. I worked front-of-the-house. When I was 16-17, I was a host, was a server, and paid for college by waiting tables. At different restaurants. Then when I came to San Francisco, I loved food and so my first job while I was looking for other jobs [after college], was as a pantry chef at Liberty Café in Bernal Heights. Then I got a job pretty quickly in nonprofit. I stayed there…there was so much of me that wanted to work in food, but there was so much of me that wanted to change communities by working with youth. I fell a little bit torn between my two passions. That was 7 years ago.
24E: Where did you grow up?
SM: In Southern California. My parents came here from Sri Lanka and opened a dry cleaners. I grew up in my parents’ dry cleaners and in small business. I didn’t really think about entrepreneurship when I was young because you just didn’t really have a chance. Our parents were like, we need you in the dry cleaners or we need you to send out this mailer. It was a family business, it was all hands on deck. I realized when I was older, I loved entrepreneurship. When I was in college, I think that was the one thing that separated me from other people is that I had so much random work experience.
24E: So at a young age you gained a tremendous amount of work experience.
SM: Definitely. I think the thing about small business and nonprofit, it’s similar because you do a lot of different things. You’re working with young people. You’re doing your accounting. That was the other thing that drew me to nonprofits. I liked doing a lot of stuff and learning new things. That energy, I think, is just really what we thought about here. We all love being in food. My sister grew up in food too. We waited tables, the same chain at one point, which did not necessarily go well. [Laughter]
24E: [Laughter] You and your sister worked at the same restaurant?
SM: We would have to be separated in different rooms. Then she went into tech. We grew up cooking and having parties with friends, dinner parties with friends. When this all came together, Jefferson was the executive chef at Spoon Rocket.
24E: Was Jefferson a friend, how did you know him?
SM: We met at Google. He was their executive sous chef and my sister was at Google and was friends with him.
24E: Were you at Google too or just your sister?
SM: No, just my sister.
24E: Okay, I was wondering about you two working at the same place again, and if Google had to separate you? [Laughter]
SM: She was at Google and I would just go in for lunch. I think Jefferson thought I worked at Google because I was eating free food all the time. Then I was telling him about working with young people and my cupcake business and I was like, yeah, I really want to merge these.
24E: What was you cupcake business called?
SM: Cynically Delicious.
24E: How did you end up here in Northern California?
SM: I went to Cal. I think that Cal was a very unique experience in that it is an extension of entrepreneurship in a lot of ways because it is a very independent university. They encourage you to explore everything. Also, everyone is really engaged in activism. I wonder if I would have stayed in social-driven companies, if it wasn’t for Cal.
24E: It sounds like it was a good fit for you. What did you study?
SM: I studied film. I wanted to be a screenwriter.
24E: Did you stay here in the East Bay after you graduated?
SM: I traveled for a little while, traveled and backpacked through Europe and went to Sri Lanka. My sister and I went together. After college was my first time going to Sri Lanka. My sister and I went together.
24E: Did that trip impact your menus [at the Town Kitchen], and how you liked to cook and think about food?
SM: We don’t have anything that’s necessarily Sri Lankan on the menu, although I think it would be really cool to have a week of Sri Lankan menus. I think it made me really excited about the idea of slow cooking and really thinking about food anthropology and where our food comes from, in less of a clinical way and more of a community way. How do we tell our stories through food? I think that’s very much a part of our programming here, is we pick up a lot of dishes and we’re exposed to so much great food in the Bay Area.
24E: How do you recruit your students and what can they learn?
SM: In the summer, we launched and piloted our education initiative. That was called Youth Food Project. We did that in cooperation with Mamacitas Café, Beyond Emancipation, Mandela MarketPlace, and Youth UpRising sent us a few students.
We sat down together and we created a curriculum that was food justice focused and food service and entrepreneurship. The students – we had 14 students in our first cohort and some of them worked at Mamacitas – some worked with us. Some worked at Real Food Cup, which is another company here, with Shawn over at Tart! Bakery, and then at Mandela MarketPlace. We had a panel of entrepreneurs of color. Mandela has this really great cooperative model that they shared. The idea was to make it really interactive and they learned knife skills through Jefferson. They learned barista skills through Red Bay Coffee, and to also talk about food anthropology, food justice, and talk about communities of color. And talk about how food access plays into that.
24E: When you say food justice, what does that mean?
SM: It’s really around food access and food marketing. Talking about how we’re actively marketed to, and about diabetes and how that plays into black and brown communities. Also, access. When you have direct marketing, like McDonald’s and toys, in the community that has high diabetes, that’s really problematic.
Also, as a term of empowerment, we have a lot of buying power, and young people do, too. Young people are huge consumers, and we can use that money to spend locally and to support companies that we really believe in. To educate our brothers and sisters about food and about eating healthy in a fun way. We started teaching cooking classes and it’ll be Brian and Rashan teaching. They taught tortilla making to young kids.
It’s not meant to be like, ‘Yeah, we all need to eat super healthy, eat quinoa and that’s the only thing you can eat.’ It’s more like, ‘How can we talk about the process of making things and that things can be made from scratch really easily? Also, how can we make things that feel a little bit healthier?’ A lot of it, too is talking about how we got to this idea of Mexican food being cheese and heavy, and that’s not what it looks like in Mexico.
24E: What is some information about your youth…about their age, their education, and their background?
SM: All of our youth are youth of color. Most of them are Oakland natives. All of them are East Bay natives. Average age right now is about 21. No one has a college degree or is actively enrolled, or when they came to us, were actively enrolled in college. Now we have some students that are signed up for college, so we’re really excited about that.
24E: How often does your menu change?
SM: It changes every week. We have four options every week.
24E: Who are some local people you’ve worked with?
SM: Mamacitas and Red Bay Coffee. We’ve worked with over 30 food businesses, like Shawn over at Tart! Bakery. We’ve worked with Jenna from Sugar Knife.
24E: How are you using social media?
SM: We’re trying to get the youth to do more posting on Instagram. They’ve done it here and there, but we’d love for them to take more ownership over that. We do Facebook ads and that’s been really successful. We haven’t used Twitter as much as we should. That’s my goal for this quarter, to actually focus on Twitter. Anytime someone takes a photo of their lunch when they get it, it’s the best.
24E: How many people do you have here on most days?
SM: We have 9 youth staff right now.
24E: What’s the wage?
SM: It’s $15 an hour. We do $13 for the first month to make sure, kind of the trial run and to make sure that we’re going to retain them and that they’re growing. So far, everyone that started at $13 has increased to $15.
24E: How many lunches do you make per week?
SM: It depends. Right now, we have just delivered over 11,000 total meals. We’re growing. This last month, we had 2,500 lunches.
24E: Was the burn on your arm also from your cupcake days?
SM: Oh, my god, no. The burn was from here. I was making chocolate chip cookies and not paying attention.
24E: Why not a cupcake [tattoo]?
SM: I have a love for kitchen utensils and a love for writing utensils. If it wasn’t a whisk, it might have been a gel pen. [Laughter]
24E: How do you start your day?
SM: We have kitchen call times at 6AM.
24E: You’re an early bird. Then coffee or tea?
SM: Coffee. Yeah, well, I’m Sri Lankan so I have to acknowledge that I do love tea. Black tea. I grew up on black tea with milk and sugar.
24E: When do you do your most creative work?
SM: Definitely at night. If I start a creative project, I can go throughout the night.
24E: What’s your favorite East Bay restaurant and dish?
SM: I love Kingston 11. Their jerk chicken is really good. Also, I just love plantains.
24E: What makes Oakland and the East Bay unique to any other place you’ve lived before?
SM: It’s the community and the vibrancy.
24E: What’s your comfort food?
SM: I feel like I have to say Sri Lankan food, which I don’t have that much, but Sri Lankan crab curry is the best thing in the world.
24E: What happens when you get mad?
SM: I’m sure my sister would have a different answer! [Laughter]. It’s a mix. If I’m stressed and mad, then I will be…I’ll be snappy. If I’m mad and I have time to think about it, it’ll be more bottled. I’ll think about why I’m mad.
24E: When are you your happiest?
SM: My ideal life is around a great home-cooked meal with friends and family. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just laughing.
24E: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
SM: I wanted to be a screenwriter.
24E: Now, what do you want to be when you grow up?
SM: This has been my dream. This is my dream.
24E: If you were a rapper, what would your name be?
SM: Sabrizzle. [Laughter]
24E: You didn’t have to think too long about that! [More laughter]
SM: I was called Sabrizzle quite a bit growing up.
24E: Last question, corn or flour tortillas?
SM: Corn, but you know, the thing is, I love fresh-made tortillas. I love quesadillas with corn tortillas, so that one’s tough, but corn. What about you? What’s your rapper name?
24E: Pixlemore. Like Macklemore. My nickname is Pixie, and so I’m Pixlemore.
SM: That’s awesome. That’s great.
24E: That would be my rap name. I’m still trying to find out where MC Hammer and Too $hort are. I would love to interview them for my blog. That would be really fun. I grew up with their music.
SM: I feel like that could happen.