It’s a Saturday morning at Long Beach commissary space Feel Good Salsa Kitchen, and partners Nancy Alvarez and Shannon Smith are setting up. The pair run a burgeoning coffee business called Scary Good Coffee, and they’re pulling out table legs and unstacking chairs to prepare for another day of serving drinks at their outdoor pop-up shop. Inside the building on Orange Avenue, other small groups are preparing for their own days ahead, batching vegan ice cream bars, crimping Argentine empanadas, and cleaning seafood for what will ultimately become a spicy mango-habanero shrimp ceviche.
It’s a busy day, one of many for the emerging Long Beach entrepreneurs who use Feel Good Salsa Kitchen’s compact 1,700-square-foot space to test out the viability of their culinary dreams. It is the inexpensive access to restaurant-level cooking equipment and shared services that draws these 19 operators to Feel Good Salsa Kitchen in the first place, but it is the mind and heart of owner Dina Feldman that keeps them here.
Feldman will tell you that she never intended to be a part of the food industry, even after spending years in the kitchens that employed her family across Southern California. Instead she was encouraged to pursue a more stable career path, choosing college and multiple degrees in psychology as a way to build her own bedrock. And yet suddenly, at age 40 and facing a high-level promotion at Tustin’s Advancement for Behavioral & Educational Development and Intervention consultation firm, Feldman chose to leave the steadiness of her 20-year career to follow an uncertain but forceful passion for agricultural sustainability and small-business growth she’d nurtured since her childhood days in restaurant kitchens.
“I found myself diverting from my planned career path, and heading towards an unknown future,” says Feldman of her lightbulb moment. “I knew that I had to give the culinary side of me a shot at success.”
That moment led to the creation of Feel Good Salsa in 2017, a locally sourced and sustainably made salsa company that began as a vision in Feldman’s own backyard garden. Feldman aimed to recreate the homemade salsa she grew up with in Mexico. Having immigrated with her family at age 8, Feldman knew her heritage would play a role in the food business she was creating.
The salsa, in turn, led Feldman to this commissary kitchen space on Orange, and the chance to offer support and growth to some of Long Beach’s brightest young food minds. Before she could even begin production, Feldman faced a challenge: Where were the affordable shared kitchen spaces that she could lease to help scale and fully legalize her business? Cottage industry food laws only go so far for non-refrigerated items (and rely on home cooking equipment while capping total sales), and at that time there were no communal kitchens anywhere in Long Beach. Feldman rented space from a caterer for a while, but the relationship and overlapping needs quickly proved incompatible. While searching for an alternative she came across a kebab shop that was about to go up for sale.
She leased the address for her own prep and cooking needs and, in April 2018, opened Feel Good Salsa Kitchen to fill the void of accessible commercial kitchens. She envisioned a collaborative cooking space where vendors would work together, passing along opportunities and pooling resources and manpower when needed. “I learned how to build a structure for a shared kitchen that would operate out of abundance, not scarcity, and help anyone who asks.”
“Dina picks person over product,” says Nancy Alvarez of Scary Good Coffee. “Everyone wants to see you succeed. The whole point is [to] make space for your community to serve.”
There has continued to be ongoing demand for the kind of egalitarian space that Feldman promises. Even today, 90 percent of the new inquiries to Feel Good Salsa Kitchen happen by word of mouth, through farmers market managers, Long Beach Fresh (a local nonprofit that works to expand the Long Beach food economy and infrastructure), and even the local health department. Tenants rotate based on need, with the newest operators learning from more seasoned cooks and owners over time. They not only share kitchen space, allotted throughout a given week by assigned timeslots, but also help each other find new vending opportunities in Long Beach and beyond. Growing businesses are encouraged and supported to move on when they need more time slots and space than available, freeing up room for another new name.
At any given time, Feel Good Salsa Kitchen serves as a home and haven for food trucks, pop-ups, catering companies, and farmers market sellers. It is a middle ground between unlicensed vending and one-off events where startup food companies can come to grow, with permits and department of public health guardrails in place. Unlike some more predatory ghost kitchen commissaries that have since invaded Los Angeles County, overhead is low, being singularly competitive is discouraged, and cultural buy-in is remarkably high.
For Yesenia Vizcarra of Mariscos Yessy, Feel Good Salsa Kitchen came at a necessary time, with local public health officials threatening to shut down her seafood stand for operating, unpermitted, out of a private residence. “Our business started on a whim,” says Vizcarra. “We made ceviche for a friend’s birthday party and somebody there asked if they could purchase $100 worth. We didn’t even know what that amount was!”
The seafood side gig picked up steam quickly, starting on Instagram and growing until both Vizcarra and her husband quit their jobs to focus on the business. But a few run-ins with public health officials and warnings about needing a food truck or physical restaurant left the pair puzzled, perusing the internet for help. “We started looking into ghost kitchens, but we were so lost in the process,” says Vizcarra. Feldman “responded the same day to our query and met with us right away. She listened to our troubles and walked us through the process of obtaining a business permit and — within an hour — had given us more guidance than anybody else we had ever encountered.”
Mariscos Yessy’s first day in Feel Good Salsa Kitchen was July 4, 2020. “To this day, Dina is still there for us,” says Vizcarra. “She’s family, and will always be there to guide us.”
Vegan food truck and restaurant Maneatingplant now finds itself on a similar trajectory. The group’s menu, which draws inspiration from the owners’ Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese roots, was still being fleshed out when co-owner Phil Kwan ran into Feldman at a 2018 pop-up at Smog City Brewery in Torrance. “We asked her as many questions as possible,” says Kwan. “She was an open book when a lot of people weren’t.” The two stayed in touch as Maneatingplant hopped between commissary kitchens with little luck, and when a space opened up at Feel Good Salsa Kitchen, Feldman called.
“Dina is our fairy godmother,” says Kwan. “She is supportive in every step, sharing the wealth of knowledge she’s learned from her salsa company with everyone. She will always stop what she’s doing to explain a form, an application, or anything we have questions about.”
Maneatingplant couldn’t have flourished without her, Kwan says. Today the company has grown into a business with multiple employees, a payroll, and a dedicated spot at the weekend food bazaar Smorgasburg in Downtown Los Angeles. The restaurant will likely be leaving Feel Good Salsa Kitchen soon in favor of their own private kitchen, freeing up space for another new tenant.
“We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if we had chosen to work at a [more corporate] ghost kitchen,” Kwan says. “What Dina is doing for food startups is rare. We’re not just another number on somebody’s check collection.”
“Everyone should be able to move on and move forward,” says Feldman of the growth she’s seen from tenants like Mariscos Yessy and Maneatingplant. “I want to be a space for local startups, [to] reduce the fear of taking a risk, guiding tenants to their end goal.”
That mindset is precisely how the weekend pop-up Scary Good Coffee came to be. While many tenants at Feel Good Salsa Kitchen actually sell their finished products on food trucks or at farmers market stalls, Alvarez and Smith have always dreamed of running a physical shop in Long Beach. “We launched in LA during the pandemic,” says Alvarez, when uncertainty and market volatility were high. To reach their end goal the pair needed a middle ground, a place to grow without the pressure and crush of too many investors or too much paperwork. They found that, and more, at Feel Good Salsa Kitchen.
“We visited a few spaces, and Dina’s was the only place where it wasn’t just a tour of a facility,” says Alvarez. “For that time in our business — pandemic, just launched, health department regulations — we needed someone who would help us in more ways than just kitchen space.”
Alvarez and Smith were drawn to Feel Good Salsa Kitchen’s close quarters in part because it breeds collaboration and support. They’ve since begun partnering with a local dessert company on small batches of coffee-flavored ice cream, and they hope to pursue more partnerships down the line. “We’re able to test things out in an early, affordable way,” says Alvarez. “Almost like a test kitchen. What Dina has created is a community of small businesses willing to help each other succeed.”
Feldman is on her own growth journey, too, as part of what she’s dubbed her “feel good crusade.” In 2020 she co-founded the nonprofit Sowing Seeds of Change as an agricultural education and vocational center, housed at an urban farm located beneath an overpass near the 710 freeway. The space provides sustainable agriculture training and job readiness workshops to underserved and marginalized young adults in Long Beach and beyond. With her new nonprofit and growing kitchen space taking priority, Feldman decided to halt production of her salsas in Spring 2022.
“Scalable is sustainable,” says Feldman. “Everything I am building is an investment in my community — our food, our people, and our environment.” Waste-reducing, environmentally impactful practices such as composting and using eco-friendly containers are highly encouraged (and financially supported) at Feel Good Salsa Kitchen, with vendors earning scaled rent reductions based on their ability to reduce their carbon footprint.
“What she’s doing as an incubator is incredibly rare,” emphasizes Kwan from Maneatingplant. “She’s doing everything she can to pave the way for us to do the best we can, even if it’s not benefiting her directly. Her mission is to always be better, and it’s already made us better.”
Feel Good Salsa Kitchen is located at 714 Orange Avenue in Long Beach, California.