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Selling Food From Your Kitchen Is Legal In California, But There's A Catch

California home cooks like Akshay Prabhu are excited about the prospect of selling food from their kitchens to supplement their incomes.
Ezra David Romero
Capital Public Radio
California home cooks like Akshay Prabhu are excited about the prospect of selling food from their kitchens to supplement their incomes.

A new law in California allows home cooks to prepare and sell meals out of their personal digs as of January 1. But would-be household hash slingers shouldn't grab their aprons and chef hats just yet. The law — the first of its kind in the country — has a major caveat: counties have to opt in, and so far, none have. But some Bay Area and Central California counties are considering it.

Most states currently restrict people from selling food except through co-working or commercial kitchens. The Homemade Food Operations Act — signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last September — was designed to give cooks a chance to see if it's worth opening a restaurant, says California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who authored the bill. And it's not a totally new concept for the state. The new law builds on the 2012 California Homemade Food Act, which allows people to sell prepared low-risk foods created at home like jams or frozen food.

"Legitimizing these home businesses will offer a means of economic empowerment and pathways for many to achieve the 'American dream,' " Garcia said when the bill was signed.

There are restrictions. For example, home food operations must be inspected and registered with the county where they are located, and, like other food facilities, must follow health, training and sanitation standards. Also, the cook or a family member must deliver meals directly to the end customer and not employ an app or retailer, says Peter Ruddock, an advisor for the advocacy groupC.O.O.K. Alliance that supported the bill.

Even though no counties are fully on board yet, he says early adopters are "going to show the way and then there'll be the ones who drag their feet."

Ruddock suspects it will take a few months before any county jumps into the pot. "Things are starting to move," he says. "It's not build it and they will come. It's the cooks come and make a lot of noise and then they will build."

When a county approves the ordinance, bakers and chefs will then be allowed to make up to $50,000 annually within the law — that's about 60 meals per week.

Akshay Prabhu is one of those cooks, and he is fired up about the new law. His meal side hustle in Davis, Calif. was shutdown last spring when Yolo County officials told him it was illegal to sell plates of food out of his home to supplement his day job.

"I used to do a taco Tuesday and make the tortillas and meat from scratch," Prabhu said. "They were great events with people from all walks of life. It seems like an old-school way of thinking . . . but the county is worried about mitigating risk."

More than six months later, he's still cooking, but without pay. His go-to is a Moroccan Chicken Tagine. He adds ginger, garlic a buddy grew, olives, onion, spices and pickled lemons. It's a meal served with apricot couscous and salad that he'd sell for $12 a plate for a seating of 10.

Of his experience, he says: "It was enough to figure out if you want to start a restaurant, if you like serving people, if your culinary ideas are exciting enough to rent a commercial kitchen or to take out a loan."

Prabhu — who lobbied for the bill on behalf of his organization Foodnome, which brings customers and cooks together — believes the new law will introduce an array of diverse foods to the public.

"A lot of home cooks have really unique food ideas that aren't represented in normal restaurants," Prabhu says of his friends who prepared meals from places like Zimbabwe and Northern China. "There's a lot of food tradition and cultures that are dying out and it's because of lack of opportunity, not lack of ideas."

Prabhu is in the process of asking Yolo County to take part.

"They're not opposed, but they need to see how much of the community really wants this," says Prabhu.

Ultimately, he says if home cooks want to speed up the process, they are going to have to ask county officials across the state to adopt and enforce the law. He's held one meeting for area cooks to come together and plans on holding more.

Yolo County is currently grappling with how to implement the law, says Lewis Kimble with the county's Environmental Health Services Consumer Protection Unit. The bill leaves a few open questions, such as which department or agency is supposed to enforce the law and whether entities inside the county can act alone.

"What if a county doesn't want to opt in, but cities do?" Kimble asks. "There might be a way to write the law that will give a city discretion to authorize a program like this."

Another challenge for county officials is that no funds have been allotted for the new law. It is set up as a fee-based permitting system. County officials in places like Yolo, where interest is high, are trying to find ways to make the law enforceable, which may take time.

The county is also concerned over food safety, permitting and water use. Still Kimble says he has a list of home cooks who want the county to opt in.

"One works on a lavender farm and is interested in new products to offer the community," Kimble says.

Back in Prabhu's kitchen, he's sharing the meal with his friend Isaac O'Leary who was hanging fliers around Davis to gather home cooks for future meetings.

O'Leary liked the meal so much that he smiles and says to Prabhu, "you should start a restaurant, dude."

That's Prabhu's long-term goal. He wants to open a brick-and-mortar spot showcasing endangered food from around the world. But first he needs to experiment before he spends a ton opening a restaurant.

Copyright 2019 CapRadio News

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.

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