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