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Will a new California law open up opportunities for Oakland’s home cooks?

on December 5, 2020

Olivia Villa walks less than 300 steps to work every morning.

She’s the owner of Libby’s West Coast BBQ which she runs as a licensed home cook out of her own kitchen. California recently passed a law to become the only state in the U.S. legalizing the sale of home-cooked food to the public. 

Villa lives in Riverside County, the first county in California to issue permits to home cooks. According to the law, each county or jurisdiction in the state has to opt-in for the law to apply. 

Alameda County is considering whether to adopt the policy. 

Villa opened her restaurant in 2019. She learned how to cook barbecue from her father. She recently offered a Thanksgiving bundle of food that included turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.“All the good stuff,” Villa said. 

She said feels grateful for the new law.

“I feel that everyone should have the opportunity to start somewhere,” Villa said.

The image shows a pulled pork sandwich on a board. The sandwich has 3 pickles on top of the bun held by a toothpick.
‘The Big One’ Pulled Pork Sandwich from Libby’s West Coast BBQ Restaurant in Riverside County

While the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operators law, or MEHKOs, creates new opportunities for home cooks, there are also regulations. Home kitchen operators are limited to $50K in sales annually. They can only sell 30 plates per day, and the food has to be cooked and sold on the same day. Only certain types of food can be sold, such as baked goods, to prevent food-borne illness. The law also requires inspections and food safety training, and stipulates there be just one cook in each home kitchen.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick every year from a food-borne illness. So safety will be one of the biggest factors when Alameda County officials decide whether or not to adopt the new law. Ernest Black, a microbiologist and CEO of the Institute of Food Safety, Health, & Hygiene, Inc. says that cross contamination is the biggest risk when cooking. 

In the world of microbiology, there’s no such thing as the number zero,” Black said. “Food handlers often focus on what they see and [they] need to be concerned about things that they don’t see.”

Attorney Seema Rupani thinks Alameda County should opt in because it will create more opportunities for women, immigrants and people of color to own businesses and generate income. Rupani is an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, which provides free legal services to Alameda County residents. The organization also supports low-income entrepreneurs who need help understanding the permits and licenses required to open a business.

Rupani said the shortage of affordable housing in the Bay Area creates instability and makes it impossible for residents to think about starting a business.

“Discrimination might not be as explicit and baked into the law, but it’s still there and people can’t afford to have businesses in a certain area,” she said.

Rupani also sees this policy as an easy way for Alameda County to relieve some of the economic suffering caused by COVID-19. She would like to see stronger tenant protection included in Alameda County’s policy. 

People will be deterred from exercising their rights to get the permit and operate a home food business because of fear of retaliation from their landlord or telling them they can’t do this,” she said.

The Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens Alliance, or the COOK Alliance, is a nonprofit organization that organizes home cooks and advocates for policy on their behalf. The organization was established in 2018, and its staff and volunteers are trying to spread the word about the new law. 

Peter Ruddock heads COOK Alliance’s efforts to get counties, military bases and Native American reservations to adopt the law in California. He says allowing home cooks to operate commercially while coronavirus is a public health concern makes sense because people can work alone.

“If you’re concerned about health during the pandemic, working in a commercial kitchen with other independent folks would increase your risk,” Ruddock said. 

Ruddock also said the cost of permits may deter some people from applying. COOK Alliance wants to raise money to help pay those costs. He added that allowing counties to opt-in to the new policy will mean a waiting game for many home cooks.

If you want to cook now, you find a commercial kitchen. If you want to cook at home, you wait,” Ruddock said.

If Alameda County approves the measure, interested entrepreneurs would have to apply for the MEHKO permit. Alameda County will still need to determine the cost of the permits.

Then residents have to attend training known as Food Protection Manager Certification. The cost for this permit is between $50-$90.

For Olivia Villa, being able to open Libby’s Barbeque restaurant during the pandemic has been a chance to be a first-time entrepreneur. She thinks cooks in Alameda County should have the same opportunity. 

“Stay encouraged, keep pressing forward,” Villa said. “Keep trying to get that vote, keep trying to change that law.”

Picture of Chef Olivia Villa in a black top with dark hair and make up on.
Chef Olivia Villa, Owner of Libby’s West Coast BBQ

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