Local cooks who have produced food for sale in their neighborhood informally will soon be able to do so with the blessings of San Diego County, under an ordinance authorizing them to sell freshly cooked meals from home kitchens.
On Wednesday the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that allows the micro-businesses to sell up to 30 take-out meals per day or 60 meals per week, and establishes the food safety conditions they must meet.
“We have a very unique opportunity to uplift nontraditional food entrepreneurs during a really challenging time for so many,” Supervisor Nora Vargas said. “These entrepreneurs represent an informal economy that has been present in our community for decades. But during the pandemic we saw more and more of these ventures pop up in our communities.”
Known as Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations, or MEHKOs, the small businesses already operate unofficially. In 2018 the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 626, which sets statewide rules to legalize their operations.
Since then the program has been adopted by eight other California counties, including Riverside County. In September, Supervisors Nora Vargas and Joel Anderson proposed introducing a MEHKO program here.
Starting a home food business helps many families make ends meet, and provides a low-cost first step toward launching costlier businesses, such as food trucks or brick and mortar restaurants, supporters said.
On Wednesday the board unanimously voted to authorize the program temporarily for two years, allowing one home kitchen business per residence. They will finalize the approval Jan. 26, and revisit the program in two years.
Under the new rules, cooks who wish to open home kitchen businesses must earn a food safety certificate, pass an inspection at startup and once per year afterward and prepare, cook and serve food the same day.
Other rules prohibit them from producing or serving raw milk products or raw oysters, and from working as a caterer or event vendor, and specify conditions for food storage and well water testing.
Some speakers expressed concerns that the small home food businesses could jeopardize the success of local restaurants, but supervisors said the low cap on sales would prevent that.
“People are getting quality food from their neighbors,” Anderson said. “Most of the MEHKOS draw people from a handful of miles from their home. Because the cap is so low they don’t compete with restaurants in any way, shape or form.”
Roya Bagheri, executive director of The COOK Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for home food entrepreneurs, said the organization expects to see 100 to 200 home kitchen businesses operating within the first year, and said they may sell meals from various cultural traditions, ranging from soul food to traditional Mexican dishes and Asian cuisines. There’s even newer fare for adventurous diners, she said, citing one home chef who makes Japanese-Mexican fusion food, such as Birria Ramen.
“We’ve become such a foody town in general,” Bagheri said. “I think this program is going to really fit in and elevate the cuisine that’s available. In addition to being an incredible economic opportunity for entrepreneurs, because the barriers to entering the food industry in the traditional way are so high.”