Started with Manaus help
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Correspondent
A dozen Hispanic families, most of them from Carbondale, have banded together to form Cocina del Valle, or Kitchen of the Valley, which has been cooking up a storm of mostly Mexican dishes and catering to a growing clientele of area organizations and individuals.
Family members do the cooking, serve the food at events, and handle the catering and delivery duties.
Cocina del Valle, which was started with the help of the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project in the Third Street Center [TSC] in Carbondale, was hoping for a kitchen space located in the TSC as well.
But after months of trying and failing to reach an agreement for a kitchen facility in the TSC, Cocina del Valle is about to move into a space on Two Rivers Road in Basalt, formerly occupied by the now-defunct Eurasia restaurant, according to Carbondale philanthropist and entrepreneur George Stranahan, founder of the Manaus Fund and principle of the Valley Settlement Project.
Once it is open, some time this spring, the Cocina del Valle will function as a sit-down restaurant and a catering business, with take-out available, said Stranahan, who negotiated a lease agreement with the Basalt landlord this week.
“All of this came out of our parent-mentoring program,” Stranahan said of the families involved in the Cocina.
The Valley Settlement Project was started several years ago to offer a variety of programmatic assistance to local low-income families, primarily Hispanics, such as career counseling, development of leadership skills, school-related assistance for youths and their families, and much more.
Looking for ways to help Hispanic families make a living in the Roaring Fork Valley, where Latinos were harder hit than others by the hardships of the Great Recession, Stranahan met with some of the families and asked them what they thought they could do that had economic value.
“They all said they could cook,” Stranahan recalled. “The first thing they came up with was food.”
And so began the planning that ultimately led to creation of Cocina del Valle, which originally involved 19 local families.
The enterprise, run as a cooperative of local Hispanic families, originally was envisioned solely as a take-out facility, possibly with the capability for delivery, which would have operated out of a space in the TSC that was designed to be a commercial kitchen.
But when another TSC business, Lisa’s Cafe, closed last year, Stranahan said, the thinking about Cocina del Valle shifted to a concept that included seated dining as well as catering and take-out.
Complications arose concerning the Lisa’s space, however, and Stranahan again shifted his focus to a space adjacent to the main doors to the TSC, after learning that the main utility lines for the TSC come in to that part of the building.
“Essentially, when you’d walk into the Third Street Center, you’d walk through a restaurant,” Stranahan said, adding that he and the TSC board felt that might enhance the vitality of the building.
But, once again, the planning got bogged down in details, prompting the Cocina del Valle coop to establish legal commercial kitchens in a couple of local homes and start doing business that way.
“It’s really been going very well,” Stranahan said of the business so far, explaining that the kitchen has catered to a variety of local organizations, including the Carbondale Police Department, the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners, events put on by the Roaring Fork School District, the Day of the Dead celebrations at the TSC itself, and birthday parties of local families, among other customers.
“They can do high-end, Aspen style, or the low-end burrito for lunch,” remarked Valley Settlement Project Executive Director Jon Fox-Rubin on Tuesday during an interview about the cooperative.
Referring to the Basalt facility, Stranahan said, “We think it’s a pretty good business model. Besides, there’s a certain Taqueria that’s not there anymore,” a reference to the once wildly popular Taqueria el Nopal that closed its doors last year, when the town started redeveloping the site where the restaurant once stood.
Although the Cocina kitchens in Carbondale remain open for business (they can be reached at 970-274-2826), Stranahan said those probably will close down once the Basalt restaurant opens its doors.