Solano County to allow home chefs to launch micro restaurants

Move over Bobby Flay. Home-based kitchen chefs may have their “throw-down” day in Solano County come Jan. 1.

The county has signed on to a California law that allows for home chefs to use their homes as quasi pop-up restaurants.

The practice is allowed under Assembly Bill 626, passed into law in 2018 and written by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella. The bill legalizes what is being referred to as a microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO) in the same realm as a food facility.

Home kitchen operations would need to abide by uniform health and sanitation standards as retail establishments, with the counties permitting them and enforcing the regulations. Such a kitchen is defined in the law as a facility “that is operated by a resident in a private home where food is stored, handled and prepared for, and may be served to, consumers.”

There are other caveats for these private kitchen enterprises. Food service is limited to 30 meals a day, 60 a week, with annual gross sales capping at $50,000.

Along with Alameda, Solano County took almost half the year to determine whether to go forward, staging several meetings before arriving at a decision. The Board of Supervisors passed the final resolution last April.

“We knew they would not be implemented without health orders in place and as long as enforcement is handled through the local health officer,” said Terry Schmidtbauer of Solano County’s Resource Management Department.

The program caught on fire when community leaders and cooking business advocates came on board.

“At first, there was a lot of resistance because of health issues. But opening a restaurant is so out of reach for many people. It’s so expensive. This is going to create a lot of opportunities,” said Tim Murrill, Solano Small Business Development Center executive director. “This is a very timely program. It had an appeal without COVID, which has only accelerated it.”

One of 1,000 centers across the nation funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Murrill’s organization partnered with the COOK Alliance in support of the program. The small business center plans to conduct webinars to instruct how an aspiring chef may get in on the program and follow the rules.

Business licenses are anticipated to take up to six weeks to receive to operate a home kitchen in Solano County.

Tepid reception in other North Bay counties

Meanwhile, neighboring counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Marin, have moved at a snail’s pace in embracing the idea.

Marin County “has not made a decision,” which would need to be discussed by the Board of Supervisors, county spokeswoman Laine Hendricks said.

Sonoma County Economic Development Board spokeswoman Aleena Decker said: ”At the moment there is no movement, but there are plans to look more into AB 626 and its feasibility for Sonoma County.”

“If Napa County opts in, that would mean all cities within the county automatically do as well,” county spokeswoman Janet Upton said.

Wary about food safety

Despite the seemingly lukewarm reception from local governments, no official opposition has been expressed by California’s representative body advocating for cities.

“The League did not have a position on AB 626 when it was moving through the Legislature and signed into law, and (we) have not heard from any of our cities about this issue,” League of California Cities spokeswoman Kayla Woods said.

The question remains: What do restaurants think of expanding the pie of dining options?

Once the parameters of the law were buttoned up, the California Restaurant Association was supportive of the idea, if safety protocols are met.

The conversation about home-based operations was introduced by the 2012 “cottage food law,” AB 1616, which proposed low-risk snacks such as jams and granola be served out of homes for events. The operations morphed from there, with a long-winded discussion about sanitary practices — even before the coronavirus outbreak. With that, the protocols were enhanced.

“Restaurants are some of the most regulated businesses, like power plants. Our concern is food safety first. There’s a lot of opportunity, but there’s also a lot of risk. It has to be regulated,” association Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy Matt Sutton told the Business Journal.

For one, Sutton posed a concern that inspections would happen once a year by appointment to these home-based operations. At restaurants, surprise inspections may occur at any time.

“Anyone can clean up. We think it undermines health and safety protocols put in place. And with COVID, there are a lot of new requirements,” Sutton said. “There’s a little push back. So many individual cities are saying they’re not ready (for their counties to follow through with the law.)”

Then again, there are positives to the practice.

“There are some innovative chefs out of work right now. This could be their sweet spot,” Sutton said. “It’s a big deal.”

And even with the controversy surrounding whether more of California’s 58 counties will sign on to such a venture, individual restaurants haven’t come out against the practice from a competition standpoint.

This is despite many restaurant owners and managers grappling with their industry taking the brunt of the worst economic crisis faced by local health orders. Many are operating at 25% capacity and others at half. More than 100,000 have closed, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Some eateries welcome the home-based trade and understand the call for it.

“Running a restaurant takes a lot of overhead. It’s real hard — especially at 25% (capacity). We wish them well,” said Amber Matthews, the manager of Huckleberry’s on Travis Boulevard in Fairfield. “This will probably be good for stay-at-home moms.”

Solano moved into the third-highest “red” tier of California’s four-level coronavirus reopening plan on Sept. 22. That allowed local restaurants to bring back indoor seating at 25% capacity.

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