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Six at-home restaurants open in Oakland, dozens more planned.

on October 4, 2021

When Akshay Prabhu’s plans for a steamed-bun cart were thwarted in 2014 by stringent restaurant standards that he couldn’t meet, frustration pushed him to change the system and the laws. 

Prabhu lobbied for the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operation bill, which passed statewide in 2018 and was adopted in Alameda County in May. Now Oakland residents can prepare and sell food directly from their homes, or offer sit-down dining.

“With prices soaring to actually get a brick and mortar, home restaurants are a way to keep the cook middle class alive,” Prabhu said.

Prabhu is now the founder of Foodnome, which supports home cooks from the early stages of registering as MEHKOs, to developing their own unique brand, and connecting them with customers. It also handles the technicality of online ordering, by providing MEHKOs with a digital meal-order platform.

Foodnome is trying to increase the number of permitted MEHKOs in Oakland from six to 35 in the next two months, and is raising $3 million to $5 million in the next month to expand its digital platform and launch in new markets. Foodnome also plans to cover the $1,000 permitting fees for qualified cooks in Oakland to join the network.  

For Prabhu and other cooks, building community is an essential part of the MEHKO ethos. 

Aaron Stewart, 39, of East Oakland, has a newly registered MEHKO working with Foodnome. Stewart’s award-winning Mexican-barbeque fusion business, MexiQ, predates MEHKO and has been operating as a catering business with regular pop-ups outside of Stewart’s home. Running his business as a MEHKO means Stewart can continue to serve his customers in his backyard.

“I made it to where it was truly like a little a little restaurant, you know, very family-oriented. I made people feel comfortable,” Stewart said. “So with this MEHKO thing, I’m really excited to get back to that, to that feel of this community.” 

MEHKOs have little overhead and typically cost about $1,000 to open, dramatically less than the $274,000 it takes on average to open a traditional restaurant, according to Restaurant Realty Co. Add another $120,000 if you remodel the restaurant and change its name. 

Elijah Brown, 29, owner of Pimpin’ Chkn in East Oakland, has been selling his fried chicken sandwiches at farmers markets. He is now transitioning to a MEHKO in his loft, reducing his overhead while offering dine-in meal service. 

“Without having a restaurant, or if you were to rent a kitchen, there’s no way to actually engage with your community,” Brown said. A MEHKO changes that. “There’s like an unlimited amount of opportunity for people to come and actually sit down in your space and enjoy the scene.”

The COOK Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the legal recognition of home cooking, reports that of the estimated 100,000 home cooks without a permit in California, 80% are women, 72% are people of color, and nearly 40% are immigrants or children of immigrants. The MEHKO model could open the door for many of those cooks.

It also makes it possible for cooks such as Jessica Fyles of Oakland, to serve a niche menu. She identifies as mixed-race, and calls her cuisine “a celebration of mixedness on a plate,” honoring her Filipino heritage and the Salvadoran food she grew up eating in San Francisco.Fyles, 39, is calling her first commercial venture Tister’s Table. 

Despite the opportunities it brings, there are limits to the law. In addition to food-handling protocols and safety inspections, it caps meal sales at 60 per week, and gross revenue at $50,000 annually. 

The cap could make it more difficult for cooks to expand their businesses.

“They wouldn’t cap any business with a storefront,” Stewart said. “So if this is to be treated like a legitimate business, then I think it should be the same.”

Peter Ruddock, implementation coordinator of the COOK Alliance, noted that limiting cooks to $50,000 in an industry where a 30% profit margin is typical, means maximum profits would total $15,000 — far below the living wage in Oakland. 

The COOK Alliance is pushing the governor to up the limit to $150,000.

Despite these limitations, Brown remains optimistic about Pimpin’ Chkn’s future. “I think it’s freaking amazing,” he said that cooks can start a business without having to go into debt. “I see the opportunity for all of us to thrive.” 

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