Q&A with Sabrina Mutukisna
Founder and CEO of The Town Kitchen
Sabrina Mutukisna is the Founder & CEO of The Town Kitchen, a community-driven food company that employs and empowers urban youth. Prior to launching The Town Kitchen, Sabrina worked to create sustainable workforce pathways that bridged stakeholders across public and private sectors. Sabrina has 13 years’ experience in Bay Area workforce development, community building, and strategic partnerships. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and board member for New Leaders Council in Oakland.
Q: Why did you start The Town Kitchen?
My parents were born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Canada in the seventies. I was born in Oakville, Ontario in 1985 and arrived in Los Angeles before my first birthday. Like many immigrants, I grew up in the family business – my weekends spent bagging and tagging clothes at Top Hat Cleaners.
Our family spent 8 years applying for a green card. By my senior year, despite getting good grades, joining student government and volunteering, I knew that any university in the United States was out of my reach. I applied and was accepted to colleges in Canada. And just then, AB540 legislation was approved. This meant that without a green card, I could get in-state tuition. With college application deadlines passed, I had to choose between a California community college and four-year college in Canada.
I ultimately chose to stay in California and attend a community college. I transferred to UC Berkeley and graduated with honors. In my final year, we received our green card and I was awarded financial aid.
My journey made me passionate about supporting young people in higher education and creating pathways towards upward economic mobility.
For young people in low-income communities, this begins with the stability of having a great job, like The Town Kitchen, coupled with mentorship and access to resources, such as opportunities for higher education. 90% of The Town Kitchen’s employees, for example, are enrolled in college classes.
Q: What does a typical day look like for one of the young people employed by TTK?
Each day really varies. Most of our youth employees work in the kitchen and begin their days around 7am. For those employees, 7am-11am is all about the hustle. We have to plate, pack and load hundreds of meals in under four hours. Some of our youth staff join our delivery drivers and serve our clients on-site while the rest of the kitchen crew prep for the next day’s service. We also have a few youth employees that work in sales and accounting – their days start around 8am where they’re working from a laptop or taking client meetings.
Q: What factors have contributed to your strong retention rate?
As a company, we collaborate with local workforce development organizations to source and employ urban youth. We recruit the majority of our workforce from the graduate pool of the Youth Food Project’s Culinary and Food Entrepreneurship Training program, an Oakland-based non-profit. They support with retention by providing case-management services and wraparound support to our youth, helping with things like housing and childcare. In addition, at TTK we place a strong emphasis on internal promotion, work to integrate concepts of restorative justice and have a culture committee that plans community-building events like bowling parties and movie nights. These efforts have resulted in our stronger-than-industry-average retention rate of 81%, compared to the 39% you usually see.
Q: What’s next? Five years from now, what do you hope TTK will have achieved?
Right now, there are more unemployed young people in the world – 71 million– than we’ve ever had at any point in history. That’s a lot of unrealized potential. In five years, we envision The Town Kitchen as a national company, with a food hub in every major urban city that’s employing thousands of young people. Ultimately, we hope to be an example of a social impact model that people can look to in creating innovative, long-term solutions for the young people who need it most.
About The Town Kitchen:
The Town Kitchen is a community-driven food company that delivers chef-crafted lunch and employs urban youth. Since launching in January 2015, The Town Kitchen has delivered over 150,000 lunches to clients like UC Berkeley, Schoolzilla and the Golden State Warriors. The Town Kitchen has been recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, and Sunset Magazine. By providing young people ages 15 to 25 with entrepreneurial training, college course credit, and fair-wage employment, The Town Kitchen aims to create pathways to upward economic mobility for young people of color so they can live, work, and build futures in their native cities.