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Home-cooking businesses gain traction in San Francisco North Bay as local regulations relax

MEHKO requirements

• Only one MEHKO is permitted per site.

• MEHKO gross sales must not exceed $50,000 gross annually.

• Only one full time employee is allowed (not including family members).

• Meals must not exceed 30 meals per day or 60 meals per week.

• Meals must be cooked and prepared on the same day.

• No signage or advertising on site. Must advertise through an approved IFSI (internet food service intermediary).

• Must register your MEHKO with the county where the business is operating.

• Application and inspection required.

• Operator must obtain a food managers certificate.

• Cannot sell to other food facilities or use third-party delivery.

Source: Solano Small Business Development Center

Home cooks making money off what they bake, fry or otherwise produce may soon find most North Bay counties a more willing partner in their businesses.

While COVID put it on the backburner, a door opened by a 2019 state law allows counties to write rules to govern the inspections and training requirements needed to grant permits for home cooks.

Of all the North Bay counties, Solano is the furthest along in embracing the state’s law on microenterprise home kitchen operations, or MEHKOs (pronounced MAY-co). The county is going forward with allowing entrepreneurs to begin the process of getting permitted. The law allows for new businesses and those operating illegally to come into compliance.

“I still have the original paperwork I started in 2014. I thought it was too much trouble and decided to do what I do and pray things worked out, and that is what happened,” said Veronica Bearce, who operates Veronica’s Veggies out of her Benicia home.

Now she plans to be MEHKO certified.

What’s happening in the North Bay?

MEHKO law builds on the much more limiting California Homemade Food Act that became law in 2013. The initial cottage food bill allowed home chefs to can foods like preserves or create anything that did not require refrigeration.

Rules for MEHKOs have lifted the lid on what a home chef is legally allowed to whip up and sell. This means milk, eggs, vegetables, meat and fish are all potential ingredients.

While some may think home chefs will compete with brick and mortar establishments, the limitations placed on these small operations does not appear to be a threat to restaurants.

“It hasn’t been a conflict, and our members are not complaining about it,” Amy Cleary, spokeswoman for Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said of the MEHKO law. The San Francisco-based group has members with restaurants in the North Bay.

The California Restaurant Association has not taken a position on the state law.

Restrictions placed in the bill are intended to keep the business small, so trash, traffic and other potential issues associated with a commercial enterprise in a residential area don’t crop up.

Also, annual gross sales cannot exceed $50,000. On top of that, the home cook can only make 30 meals a day or 60 a week.

Solano: Yes

Being the furthest along, Solano County is already training home cook business owners on the new rules. Solano Small Business Development Center conducted a workshop in May attended by more than 50 people, with varying backgrounds and connections to food. Another webinar is set for June 8.

“I’ve also designated two SBDC advisers who will work with anyone wanting to start a MEHKO business. We’re assisting them with the application with the county, food safety classes, setting up their operations, developing menus and food costing and marketing,” Tim Murrill, Solano Small Business Development Center executive director, said. “For many this will be their first time running a business and we can help them every step of the way.”

He said the benefit for existing businesses includes:

  • Being in compliance and avoiding being shut down and fined if the county finds out they’re operating from their home without a MEHKO certification.
  • Providing reassurance to potential customers that they are a MEHKO certified business because it means they have been through all of the safety and licensing protocols.
  • Receiving support of the SBDC to help them succeed.

Solano SBDC is also covering the $175 cost for 20 people to obtain a ServSafe food manager certification. According to ServSafe, the classes teach “sufficient food safety knowledge to protect the public from foodborne illness.”

Sonoma: Maybe in late summer

While Solano has taken the lead, other jurisdictions, with the exception of Napa County, are starting to set up home chef programs.

MEHKO regulations are slated to be on the Sept. 14 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ agenda. Because staff is still gathering information it’s too soon to know if an actual ordinance would be voted on that Tuesday or if the topic might be a discussion item only.

The full board expressed support for MEHKOs at a strategic planning session pre-pandemic. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins continues to spearhead the local effort.

“It can be a critical economic development tool for our community. It can empower the creation of more small businesses in our county,” Hopkins told the Business Journal. “I have heard such positive responses from constituents; for them to be able to bring in additional revenue in a county with such a high cost of living.

“This sort of opportunity can be a positive way for people to earn money during an economically stressful time, especially for some of our most vulnerable residents who have more barriers to accessing traditional employment,” she added.

MEHKO requirements

• Only one MEHKO is permitted per site.

• MEHKO gross sales must not exceed $50,000 gross annually.

• Only one full time employee is allowed (not including family members).

• Meals must not exceed 30 meals per day or 60 meals per week.

• Meals must be cooked and prepared on the same day.

• No signage or advertising on site. Must advertise through an approved IFSI (internet food service intermediary).

• Must register your MEHKO with the county where the business is operating.

• Application and inspection required.

• Operator must obtain a food managers certificate.

• Cannot sell to other food facilities or use third-party delivery.

Source: Solano Small Business Development Center

Marin: 2022 consideration

Marin County expects to begin discussions about MEHKO in early 2022 by conducting meetings with various stakeholders. Besides seeking input from the public, outreach will be made to all the cities and towns in the county because they would have to comply with whatever ordinance county supervisors approve. This is true of each county.

Greg Pirie with Environmental Health Services in Marin County said only a few people have inquired about MEHKO. The lack of an outpouring of interest and other pressing needs in the county are why the cooking legislation is not being acted on sooner.

Napa: No

Napa County has no intention of implementing the MEHKO law.

The law requires home cook regulations be adopted by every city or town in a county. To do so, Napa County contends, would run counter to a 3-decade-old voter-approved measure.

Measure J was designed to be an anti-growth measure by regulating how agriculture land is used. Measure J became Measure P in 2008 when voters extended the sunset date from 2020 to 2058.

If the county and its cities embraced home cooks as a legitimate business, it might also allow wineries to offer food.

“Measure J does not allow any new non-agricultural activities beyond when the measure was passed in 1990. The Assembly bill would allow new agricultural activities,” explained county spokeswoman Janet Upton. “Many wineries in the county don’t allow food, so it’s an existing permitting issue.”

Home chefs are already in the kitchen

For many small businesses, the work begins before the permits and licenses are in place. Such is the case with Teescakes Cheesecakes in Fairfield and Veronica’s Veggies in Benicia.

However, owners of both of these food-centric enterprises are on track to become MEHKO certified.

“What I learned is MEHKO helps with everything I’m doing,” 32-year-old Tashara Delaney said. She has been operating her cheesecake business for three years out of her home. “I’m legal per se, but I know I need to do some paperwork. That’s why I’m going through (Solano) SBDC to get all the licensing together.”

Sales are mostly through her Instagram account; with the peach cobbler and lemon cheesecakes being the best sellers of the 26 flavors she has created. They come in minis ($5) or full size ($25), and specialties ($40).

When Delaney isn’t baking, she is caring for people with special needs.

“I would like cheesecakes to be full time. I don’t want to work for anyone else anymore,” she said. That will take some time. For now, she is selling about 20 cakes a month. “What I really want to do is travel with my cheesecakes. I want to be like the first girl to have a cheesecake truck in the Bay Area.”

She also has her eye on commercial kitchen space, but that has not been finalized.

Bearce, 65, knew she needed permits for her vegan food business, Veronica’s Veggies, that she started in 2015, but she chose to skip the paperwork burden. Her cooking has been on and off in the last six years, mostly because of health issues. Now she is back, eager to be legit on all accounts.

Bearce has some set foods she makes, such a cauliflower curry soup she says “is to die for” and then does special requests as well. The North Bay Business Journal interrupted her while she was creating a vegan goat cheese for a tasting for a bridal shower.

“I’m a retired schoolteacher. My background is not business. For me, it is going to pull together all the frayed edges,” Bearce said of acquiring a MEHKO permit in Solano County. “It’s nice to have someone bedside me to mentor me and give me answers I need.”

She is taking advantage of services being provided by Solano Small Business Development Center.

Bearce knows it will be easier to get permits now than a handful of years ago because of the MEHKO law. When she first started her business home cooks were more of an underground industry with the laws not allowing them to operate legally.

“There were big limitations on what you could produce out of your home,” Bearce said. “It was hard to find commercial kitchen space that was affordable and there were other regulations. It was a headache.”

The obstacles that stopped her from being legit have been removed by the state MEHKO law.

Bearce and Delaney credit their grandmothers for instilling in them the love of food and home cooking.

“To me, the kitchen is the heartbeat of a house,” Bearce said.

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