New California Law Gives Green Light to Home-Based Restaurants

This is a game-changer for food-loving entrepreneurs.

dinner with friends
Dinner al fresco with friends.

@laurenvbreen via Twenty20

 

The city of Riverside, California has just passed a new law that allows people to run small restaurants out of their homes. AB-626 would be a game-changer at any time, but in light of the current pandemic, it's near revolutionary.

At a time when brick-and-mortar restaurants are struggling to stay open day by day, and when so many people are out of work, this bill opens unprecedented doors of opportunity. In a long piece for Eater LA, Farley Elliott explains why AB-626 could mean so much to so many:

"Between stay-at-home mandates, high unemployment, and the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by AB-626 could mean tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of local chefs who feed their communities the food they most want to eat. And while Riverside is the state’s only county to fully implement AB-626, the dozens of restaurants that have come online since January 2020 are proving that a path forward for legal home cooking is not only possible, it’s needed."

Elliott makes an intriguing comparison to the 2008 recession, which left many restaurants shuttered and staff unemployed. Out of that difficult time rose the food truck revolution, which changed America. It "[ushered] in a new era of low-cost entry and big culinary ideas. It not only democratized the process of running a restaurant, it literally took the show on the road. From food truck reality shows to movies like Chef, food trucks were seen across the country as a way in."

Home restaurants could be the next big thing, Elliott argues. This could be the burgeoning food movement of 2020-21, the thing we look back on as the silver lining to a challenging year. Already, many Riverside residents are jumping on board, creating food that has people flocking to their backyards for socially-distant dining. 

One is Lucy Silva, a single mother of three grown children who serves Mexican comfort food at six outdoor tables under string lights and umbrellas. Evon McMurray is another, a grandmother originally from Louisiana who cooks up decadent plates of gumbo, jambalaya, fried chicken, smothered potatoes and pork chops. Similarly, My Nhan Tran, a mother of four, concocts elegant, gourmet Vietnamese dishes in her home kitchen. Elliott describes: 

"A full butter poached lobster tail over garlic noodles might appear from the built-in oven of her slate-toned suburban kitchen, a rich complement to the herbaceous pho (with handmade meatballs, naturally) that arrives next ... Tran is already planning to debut a Soc Trang speciality: fermented fish noodle soup (bun nuoc leo), a pork and crab vermicelli soup (bun rieu cua), and a variety of shareable grilled fish and meat dishes."

There is still a lengthy licensing process that home cooks must undergo in order to get the permit allowing them to open a home restaurant. There can only be one full-time employee and gross annual sales must not exceed $50,000. An organization called Foodnome can assist would-be cooks, walking them through the whole process, including food handling procedures, and adding them to an online list of vendors. It has seen a 150% increase in business since April (via Civil Eats). Although Foodnome's guidance is not required for licensing, it was founded by Akshay Prabhu, who has been lobbying for home-based cooking enterprises for years and is a guiding force behind AB-626. It's because of him that home cooks are now able to do this.

I think this is an amazing initiative that could become a model for the rest of the state, and possibly even the country. Indeed, some other counties are expressing interest. Civil Eats reported that "Solano County will become the second county to adopt the act when shelter-in-place orders end, and San Mateo, Santa Barbara, and Imperial Counties, along with the City of Berkeley, have opted in, but haven’t begun issuing permits." It makes sense because it's a win-win situation for all: at-home food operations provide employment to imaginative, hardworking people who enjoy cooking (and may face significant barriers for entry into the restaurant industry), and they generate tremendous pleasure for everyone who loves to eat.

Furthermore, it has the potential to address the enduring problem of food deserts in many communities – areas with limited access to nutritious and affordable food. Prabhu told Elliott, "There are so many people within these communities that could serve food. We need to reduce the distance that food travels and increase availability of food in key neighborhoods." And because the home restaurants lack the overhead expenses associated with brick-and-mortar restaurants, the food is likely more affordable for lower-income families. 

While I realize that food handling regulations exist for a reason and must be strictly upheld to maintain public health, I'm all for loosening up the rules surrounding who can make and sell food, as long as they're compliant with hygiene rules. American food culture has so much potential to be better, to reach more people, and to resolve hunger issues, and I think that AB-626 could play an important role.