La Cocina VA Opens Cafe on Columbia Pike
Enjoy fresh soups, sandwiches, salads, coffee and pastries while supporting a great cause.
Coffee provides a necessary buzz for many of us each morning, but the pick-me-up can be so much greater when your cup of joe contributes to bettering your community. When The Cafe by La Cocina VA opens Sept. 2, that’s exactly the twofer guests can expect. The cafe’s namesake nonprofit has been helping immigrants launch culinary careers since 2013.
Initially open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m.–4 p.m., the cafe will feature pastries and breakfast sandwiches until 11 a.m., when it switches to a lunch menu offering soups, salads and sandwiches.
Dinner service with beer and wine will come later, along with expanded hours, once the organization has had a chance to work out customer preferences.
Long term (as in post-Covid), the idea is for the cafe to become the community gathering place its organizers have envisioned ever since planning started three years ago.
“We want people having meetings, hosting events; for our colleagues and nonprofits to come, tour the space, eat the food, promote diversity and inclusion, and represent the colors and idiosyncrasies of our community in the region,” says La Cocina VA CEO Paty Funegra.
Funegra founded the nonprofit seven years ago to help unemployed immigrants—mainly women—train for careers in the hospitality industry. The culinary program is designed for individuals experiencing hurdles to making a living wage or starting a career. In some instances, those barriers include domestic abuse, human trafficking and a lack of English proficiency. To date, the program has 154 graduates.
With the opening of the cafe, participants in La Cocina’s bilingual training program will have a new place to hone their skills in both the kitchen and in customer service. The cafe will be housed in the nonprofit’s new 5,000-square-foot facility located at 918 S. Lincoln St., with an entrance on Columbia Pike. (Previously, the nonprofit had been operating out of a church basement.)
Nick Freshman, founder of the restaurant venture-capital firm Mothersauce Partners and chairman of the board of directors for La Cocina VA, says the mission of the cafe is threefold: to create a new revenue stream for the organization, to expand the training opportunities for its participants, and to provide a much-needed gathering spot for the community.
“Our goal is to open a cafe where people want to go and spend their money, independent of the mission,” says Freshman, a seasoned restaurateur whose own portfolio includes Spider Kelly’s, Thompson Italian (he’s a partner) and a forthcoming coffee shop called The Freshman, slated to open this fall at National Landing. “We want to serve a product and create an environment that is just as desirable as any other concept that is out there.”
In addition to the cafe fare that will be prepared on site, The Cafe by La Cocina VA will serve items from other local businesses, such as soups from Prescription Chicken, coffee from Swing’s Coffee Roasters and pastries from Dog Tag Bakery, which offers a similar training component for veterans.
Freshman says his first lunch order will be an espresso and The Chimi, a chimichurri-infused chicken sandwich with bacon and tomato on ciabatta.
Funegra, who recently switched to a plant-based diet, is excited to order her current sandwich obsession, the Squash Butler—a stack of roasted butternut squash, sautéed kale, chipotle mayo and cheddar on sourdough (although in her case, she’ll hold the cheese).
But she’s even more thrilled to help La Cocina VA participants and graduates find meaningful employment during this difficult time. One program graduate who lost her kiosk business due to Covid will now work at the cafe.
“We feel so grateful that we were able to help her in the beginning but now offer her the chance to come back to us and receive a job opportunity in the same field she adores,” Funegra says. “When things are back to normal, we will support her to either reopen or start a different business model.”