Denise Blackmon learned to make gumbo from her mother, who learned it from a cousin from Louisiana.
“It’s literally just a list of ingredients, no measurements. I had to watch her make it over the years forever and I just know how much red pepper is supposed to go in and how it’s supposed to look,” says Blackmon, who runs a home-cooked soul food operation in Moreno Valley, California.
Blackmon, who launched Soul Goodness in August 2019, has seen her business grow substantially since California’s shelter in place order was enacted in March. She has gone from cooking two days a week to four or five, “and each time, I’m at my max,” she says. There are no soul food restaurants in Moreno Valley—an arid city located east of Riverside in Southern California—so her cooking has drawn a number of committed customers to Foodnome, the website that serves as a marketplace for her and other home cooks looking to sell meals in the region.
“I don’t just do fried chicken, but different kinds of fried fish, oxtail, gumbo, and smothered pork chops. You’re not going to get that at Coco’s or Applebee’s,” says Blackmon.
And her traditions go deep, as evidenced by feedback she’s hearing from repeat customers. “I had an older Black lady call me up and get very emotional. She thanked me and said my food tasted just like her mother’s,” she adds.
Although Blackmon had served platters of black-eyed peas and greens to large groups of friends, she had never worked as a professional chef before she clicked on a Facebook advertisement for Foodnome aimed at recruiting home cooks. The site helped her get her space in order, get an inspection from the local health department, and reach an audience. Within six weeks, she was catering a grand opening event for around 150 people.
As the caregiver for her 25-year-old autistic son, the opportunities to make a flexible income at home are rare for Blackmon. “If you’re caring for someone with special needs, it’s hard to get a job,” she says, adding, “what I get from the government … is barely enough to pay the bills.”
Operating a home kitchen also offers a sense of meaning. “Socially, this has lifted me up and put me back into the world of adult relationships,” she says. “I cook a meal, people give me a good review, and I have a positive conversation with them. I’ve even made friends.”
Just two years ago, Blackmon wouldn’t have been able sell the food she cooks at home. Since 2013, The California Homemade Food Act has allowed home cooks to make and sell certain low-risk foods from home, such as baked goods, jam, and granola—but it does not allow vendors to sell hot, home-cooked foods.
In 2014, Bay Area food entrepreneurs Matt Jorgensen and Charley Wang co-founded high-profile startup Josephine to serve as the “Etsy of home- cooked meals.” Working with 3,000 home cooks, Josephine created what Jorgensen calls a “private-club” environment for home cooks to sell hot meals to their friends and neighbors without paying the rent of high-overhead commercial kitchens.
Josephine, Jorgensen says, wanted to help home cooks who didn’t qualify to sell under The California Homemade Food Act, while assisting them with food safety training, liability insurance, and business coaching. Local health officials served Josephine cooks with cease and desist orders, leading the organization to close its doors in 2018.
After closing Josephine, Wang and Jorgensen realized that they had already invested a significant amount of effort into promoting policies to support Josephine’s work, and that they should continue that push. In early 2018, they launched the COOK Alliance, a coalition aiming to pass policy support for home restaurants—and later that year, they were successful, with the passage of the AB626, which allowed for the permitted operation of Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations, or MEHKOs.
Now, following the mass restaurant industry layoffs and economic downturn of the pandemic, home cooks like Blackmon are seeing a surge in business.
Benz and Justin Martin, who together own Cooking Thai by Benz in La Quinta, have seen an influx of orders as well, which have helped supplement their pandemic-related loss of catering jobs. “Since the pandemic, we have about 150 percent more business,” Benz says. “Business was going kind of slow at first, because people weren’t really sure what was home cooking, what was homemade food. Since the pandemic, we can do curbside as well, so that’s worked out well.”
Orders have doubled and tripled for vendors associated with the COOK Alliance. “There’s a recognition in the pandemic of what it means to have resiliency and rely on friends, family, and extended neighborhood networks in lieu of this commodified, large-scale industrial system we’ve become very reliant on,” Jorgensen says. “So, there’s been more empathy and willingness to compensate food labor.”
And yet, not everyone in the state has been able to participate in this home cooking renaissance. On paper, AB626 allows entrepreneurs across the state with MEHKO permits to cook and sell food from their own private kitchens. But few permits have been issued, because each individual county must adopt the act before home cooks can apply to get one, and to date, only Riverside County has adopted the act. Solano County will become the second county to adopt the act when shelter-in-place orders end, and San Mateo, Santa Barbara, and Imperial Counties, along with the City of Berkeley, have opted in, but haven’t begun issuing permits.
The new law allows MEHKOs’ foods to be delivered, picked up, or even eaten in the cook’s own home, effectively turning it into a tiny, community-oriented restaurant. MEKHO operators can only serve a maximum of 30 meals a day, for a total of 60 meals a week, garnering no more than $50,000 dollars in gross annual sales.
Home cooks can choose to market and sell their food on their own, or via an AirBnB-like marketplace such as Foodnome, Shef, or DishDivvy. The organizations assist home cooks in procuring their MEHKO permits and guide them through the process of creating an online menu. They have also advocated for counties across the state to adopt AB626. (In counties where the new law hasn’t gone into effect, Shef requires their cooks to use commercial kitchens.)
Making Space for Marginalized Business Owners
Isaac O’Leary, marketing director at Foodnome, has seen a 150 percent increase in sales since April, and he hopes to get more county-level lawmakers to see the rising sales of home cooked foods as evidence that they should adopt the act.
“I talk to diners often on our customer service line, and the surge in interest is people flocking to really familiar comfort meals they trust in a time of crisis,” says O’Leary. Foodnome has also seen “a massive increase” in demand for these permits since the beginning of the pandemic.
O’Leary sees home cooking enterprises as a way to engage a group of cooks who were previously excluded from earning income through their food, including parents of high-needs children, single and stay-at-home parents, and refugees and immigrants who face language and cultural barriers.
“The restaurant industry is incredibly racist and sexist, and we see this as the rung of the ladder that doesn’t exist—the rung below the food truck or food cart,” says Jorgensen. “Sometimes it’s the only available economic opportunity, given the education and other professional opportunities (cooks) might have had.”
An internal 2018 COOK Alliance poll found that the microenterprises in its network kitchens are overwhelmingly run by people from marginalized populations. Eighty-five percent of the cooks were women, and about one-third were first-generation immigrants (many of whom COOK Alliance believes may be undocumented). According to Foodnome, more than 80 percent of permitted MEHKOs in Riverside County are operated by people of color, with more than 40 Black and POC-owned small businesses created in the last year alone.
Of course, the tradition of cooks of color selling hot prepared foods long predated AB626—from bulk bags of Oaxacan tamales sold through Facebook groups to combination plates of oxtails, rice, and plantains marketed on Instagram. But operating a permitted MEHKO allows home cooks to gain a wider audience, and saves them from worrying about fines from their local health authorities.
“Just the fact that my kitchen is certified … puts me a couple of steps ahead,” Blackmon says. “I don’t know if you know how hot chicken is supposed to be if you’re just cooking out of your garage. I don’t know if your tools are sanitized. But my kitchen promotes safety, and the county board of health has certified me to be public food-worthy.”
Justin Martin sees the permitting fee as a potential roadblock for small, home-based operators, whose margins are often slim. In Riverside County, where the Martins operate their MEHKO, the fee is $651 while administrative fees for violations range from $100 to $500.
“When I found out the fee was north of $600, my jaw almost hit the ground,” Justin says, adding that it “could prevent a talented and ambitious home chef from ever going into business.”
COOK Alliance hopes to work with investors to launch an equity fund to defray MEHKO permit fees. The equity fund hopes to offset the cost of an approximately $1,000 permit in Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco, which could be a barrier to many home cooks. “City of Oakland code enforcement officers, who walk around telling pushcarts they are illegal, will be able to refer them to a formal program,” Jorgensen says, mentioning that he hopes to expand the permit equity fund to other counties.
Challenges to Adoption
Some cities and counties have voiced opposition to AB626. The city of Chino Hills has officially opposed the adoption of the act in San Bernardino County, citing “new and potential serious health risks to the public and create new enforcement challenges for our staff.” According to recent data collected by the COOK Alliance through its biweekly advocacy calls with 40 county leads who advocate in their respective areas, California’s Nevada County, Siskiyou County, Tulare County, Yolo County, and City of Pasadena have all expressed opposition to the bill.
In some counties, officials have struggled to implement the law county-wide because of individual cities protesting.
“I supported AB626, but we have not moved forward on it because it has to be countywide and not all cities in Alameda County want to implement,” Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan says. “We have County Council looking at if we can do a pilot in one or two cities under the bill.”
COOK Alliance, Foodnome, and DishDivvy have attempted to alleviate the fear of perceived health risks with hard data.
“It’s taken a little bit of time to build the concept … that these are legitimate food facilities, but the work of these home restaurants over the past year has spoken for itself,” O’Leary says. “We’ve sold 10,000 meals with no reported cases of foodborne illness and no complaints about noise or local disturbances.”
According to the language in AB626, MEHKO inspectors must survey the home kitchen, onsite eating area, food storage, utensils and equipment, toilet room, janitorial or cleaning facilities, and refuse storage area. If there is a complaint, MEHKO owners may have to pay a reasonable fee for the cost of the inspection themselves, according to the law.
The law also specifies a variety of rules to keep the neighborhood residential and not commercial. It prohibits signage or outdoor displays advertising the businesses, and requires owners to comply with local noise ordinances.
Lee Thomas, who runs a takeout and catering barbecue business called GrilleeQ out of his home in San Leandro and volunteers as county lead for COOK Alliance, believes that counties and cities should run studies focusing on their concerns, such as parking in residential neighborhoods and noise disturbances, before shutting down the possibility of adopting the law.
Thomas has also seen his business grow during the pandemic through Facebook and word-of-mouth and would like to make his brand of comfort food—from boneless chicken thighs in his homemade secret sauce, to hickory-smoked tri-tip—available through an online marketplace. When it comes to food safety, he says his customers tell him they feel safer buying dinner from a one-man operation.
“A lot of it was really because people don’t want to go grocery shopping, and a lot of people like that it’s only me, one person, cooking their meal,” he says.
Like Blackmon, Thomas says his cuisine is unique in his city. “There’s Korean barbecue, Hawaiian barbecue, but no one’s smoking [their] meat with hickory,” he says.
Promoting a variety of cuisines in a gentrifying area is just one of the reasons Thomas believes his county, Alameda, should adopt AB626. The former San Leandro councilmember hopes to convince current councilmembers by arguing for the value of unique cultural opportunities. “San Leandro prides itself on being a diverse city, but now we actually have a chance to really build upon that,” Thomas says.
Thomas says he is advocating for the educational aspects of AB626 for students because his daughter has expressed interest in the business and culinary aspects of GrilleeQ. He imagines high school students learning how to run their own microenterprise businesses. Thomas also sees the value in students being able to take field trips around the world, but in their own cities—by visiting the kitchens of home cooks.
“There are unique regional cuisines whose cooks may never be able to access the quarter of a million dollars needed to open a restaurant and get that legitimacy.”
In a Foodnome survey of its diners, the top three reasons customers buy meals on the site are for the cultural education, to access otherwise inaccessible cuisines, and to support small, local businesses, O’Leary says.
“The tragedy of this paradigm that [says] restaurants are the only safe place to get food is that there are all these food cultures that are seldom represented in the food industry,” he adds. “There are unique regional cuisines whose cooks may never be able to access the quarter of a million dollars needed to open a restaurant and get that legitimacy.”
If the act gets adopted in major California cities, it will likely attract people who are out of work from the restaurant industry, the same folks who are already setting up small food businesses only accessible through social media—such as this list of creative food “side hustles” in the Bay Area, which connects consumers directly to out-of-work chefs offering everything from Japanese-inspired Basque cheesecakes, to laksa, strawberry rhubarb pies, and ramp fettuccine.
“Almost 25 percent of restaurants will not reopen with the same [number of] staff, and there are lots of talented culinary creatives who now need employment,” O’Leary says.
But it’s unclear whether, at least in the short term, unemployed chefs with high-end experience will flood the market in cities that had developed food scenes prior to the pandemic—and whether there will be space left for less experienced folks from marginalized backgrounds.
Either way, over the long-term, Jorgensen says there’s the potential that AB626 will shift in the way people think about and value the people who feed them.
“When you go into someone’s kitchen and see their kids and eat food directly from the cook, it becomes a very de-commodified thing, and what we’ve come to expect of food is that it’s commoditized and cheap,” he says. “[The MEHKO movement] is a Trojan horse for empathy building, and we’re hoping that there’s greater long-term visibility because [home cooks] bring so much richness to what America is.”
This article was updated to reflect the fact that Josephine closed operations in 2018, not 2015.