Micro-Based Home Cooked Meals Could Democratize the Food Service Industry Locally

Foodnome is a Yolo/Sacramento based collective of home cooks.  They are hoping, following the passage of a new state law, AB 626, California’s Homemade Food Operations Act, to convince Yolo County to pass a local version of the act, authorizing local entities like Foodnome to do business locally.

AB 626 created the infrastructure for county health departments to permit home kitchens for public food sales.  It creates a permitting process at the state level for such home food operations.  However, on May 8, they were issued a warning to cease operations by the Yolo County Department of Environmental Health.

The Vanguard spoke with Isaac O’Leary recently.  He explained that he is a former Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major at UC Davis.

Mr. O’Leary explained, “I’m very familiar with issues in the food system.  A big one being equity and barriers to entry for ownership in a localized food system.”

Akshay Prabhu, a founder of Foodnome, had been operating a network of 15 home systems in Yolo County when he received a cease and desist from the Yolo Environmental Health Department last year.  He channeled his network into large rallies in the Capitol and Bay Area which became the basis for AB 626 to pass statewide.

AB 626 is a county opt-in bill and they hope to demonstrate to Yolo County the value of this legislation “in expanding access to the food system, expanding access to food business ownership.”

He explained that, at the state level, the legislation created the permitting process for the micro-enterprise home kitchen permit and, at the county level, each individual county’s environmental health department will enact legislation that expands the scope of the meals that can be served locally.

Foodnome then is a home restaurant platform.  People can log onto their website to find home cooked meals in their area that will be cooked and delivered to people’s homes.  People can book a meal and get it to go or sit down at a neighbor’s dinner table with them and eat.

“Facilitating that face to face interaction around food is something that’s really driving us,” Mr. O’Leary described.  He sees this as an expansion of the Farm to Fork movement.  “This is really a way to expand and hone in on what that means.”

How is this different from getting take out from a restaurant, we wondered.

“It’s different in the fact that it’s about one quarter of a million dollars to start operating a restaurant on average in California,” Issac O’Leary explained.  “It allows people to start food business ownership for less than $1000.”

One of the key questions that people raise is what kind of safety control system is there in place.

“It will be inspected by the health department,” Mr. O’Leary said.  “Which was the infrastructure set up by AB 626.”

He added, “In order to obtain a micro-enterprise home permit, your kitchen actually has to be inspected by the health department.  You’re going into these people’s homes and confirming that their practices are food safe.”

That includes the need to have preparation instructions written out and they have to obtain a food manager’s safety certification.

“That’s actually a higher standard of food training than the average restaurant where there’s high turnover for the employees (who) are not always aware of the practices,” he said.

He added that the largest incidents of food-borne illness come from high volume kitchens.

“Having them be micro-enterprise limits the amount of food that can be served,” he said.  “That reduces neighborhood disturbance as well as potential incidents of food-borne illness.”

How much volume then are they likely to do in an evening?

Issac O’Leary said it really varies.  He said that a number of their cooks were in it for different things.  Many are in fact new immigrants to this country.  He said they have worked with refugee organizations “where there is a huge demand for the ability to open a business.  There are massive language barriers preventing them from entering the traditional workforce.

“This allows them to make money… in a way that other businesses can’t,” he said.  “This is something that will really expand opportunities for a lot of folks.”

From the consumer’s perspective – this allows for more specialization of food sources.

“A lot of food trends we have seen popping up, have really centered around (things like) paleo-vegan, keto, gluten free,” he said.  “It takes multiple years to start a restaurant, it takes a lot of money to start a restaurant and really catering to a specialized population within the public.”

He said that “vegan food is a huge example.  We have a lot of vegan cooks.”

For those on plant-based diets, most are thoroughly disappointed with the food options in their area.  But veganism is rapidly expanding as a food choice “and the rate of vegan restaurants opening is being widely outstripped by that demand.”

He said, “That’s something that can be met in a very short-term basis.”

There are environmental implications as well with plant-based food locally grown, as opposed to factory produced meat.

Isaac O’Leary told the Vanguard they are hosting a rally at the Davis Farmer’s Market on Wednesday, May 22, at 6:30 pm.

They are hoping to raise awareness in support of AB 626 and are hoping to demonstrate that there are large numbers of people in support of this issue.

Community organizer and Foodnome founder Akshay Prabhu in their release this week, said, “Many talented cooks are not able to share their food with their community due to financial barriers. We deserve a more inclusive food system.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 Comments

  1. Sharla Cheney

    David, You need to read the legislation.  Inspections are on an appointment only basis, because it’s people’s homes, and only once a year.  They are operating without business licenses, health permits, no taxes in residential neighborhoods in direct competition with downtown restaurants, food trucks and caterers.  People have horribly ill from food sold by one of these enterprises.  I think you need to broaden your coverage.  Ask the health dept people about the problems of implementing this program, ask about the City of Davis’ disinterest in enforcement of business licenses,   ask about new pending legislation, ask about citations already issued by the Yolo Co Sheriff, ask the owners of existing restaurants, food trucks and caterers what they think.

    1. Alan Miller

      SC, Seriously?  Because the government protects us?  I ran a business that required vehicle, business and health licenses in every county I sold in.  I was a one-person operation with occasional part-time employees.  The government regulation, insurance, permit requirements were as onerous on me as they were on a 15-person operation, and I had to do it all myself — it was strangling.

      I am a capitalist, but I am not a corporatist, and certainly not a protectionist.  And the most beautiful form of capitalism is the small to tiny business, the home business, the entrepreneur (corporations are just small governments).  What I found when I tried to work in Yolo was that Davis restaurants at the time (and I suspect to this day) do not permit food trucks to operate nearby.  In Eugene and Austin, for example, food trucks thrive, and business is booming for entrepreneurs both with wheels and with building.  Davis protectionism strangles small food entrepreneurs.

      I know restaurants are not corporations, and I know restaurant ownership is a tough, tough business.  But stifling smaller businesses is protectionism, and protectionism is government intervention at its worst.  The health department inspected my van once a year — they didn’t know my practices or whether I washed my hands after using the bathroom.  I hail this legislation!  Yolo County, go forth and support tiny businesses!   And Davis, drop the restrictions on food trucks and trailers downtown and encourage the tiny entrepreneur who can’t afford a brick and mortar.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Alan… food trucks have/had frequently done business at the PW Corp Yard… used them a few times over the years… never ill, sometimes disappointed…

        DT is a different animal, to be sure… once a business establishes, one of their “prime directives” has often appeared to be, “thus far, and no farther”… ‘let’s draw up the moat’… ‘we need to regulate addition of “newbies”’ … pick your metaphor…

        You make good points…

        1. Sharla Cheney

          Food trucks are inspected and are given a permit to operate by the Health department in order to operate in Yolo County. They are plaquarded (Green pass or Red no pass).

    2. Isaac O'Leary

      Sharla, thank you for your comment! To date no one has gotten ‘horribly ill from food sold by one of these enterprises’ because no microenterprise home kitchen permits have ever been issued. All the licenses you mentioned are explicitly required by law and will be obtained along with the health department’s certification. Many of the owners of existing restaurants, food trucks, and caterers we’ve worked with have explicitly lauded this legislation as a much-needed stepping stone to enter the food industry. The barrier of entry to the food industry is too high for average people to share the gifts of their cooking with their community; AB 626 corrects that. Riverside County, with a population of more than 2,000,000 people, is successfully implementing these permits. If their health department can do it, we know that Yolo County’s can too. This law promises to expand access to healthy food, strengthen community relationships, and create a more equitable food system. We hope the public can see the immense value it offers.

      1. Bill Marshall

        create a more equitable food system

        Clarification of your meaning?  Meant as honest question.

        Not sure I understand the meaning of “equitable food system”, in this context… on a regional, global basis, I think I get what it equitable food availability means, but not in this context…

        1. Isaac O'Leary

          Bill, absolutely! I appreciate the question. I use “equitable” in reference to both food availability and access to food business ownership. As it stands now, the ability to own a food business is limited to folks with access to large amounts of start-up capital. AB 626 creates a fairer distribution of business ownership across the socioeconomic spectrum, thereby creating a more equitable food system.

      2. Sharla Cheney

        Thank you for clarifying that no microenterprise home kitchen permits have been issued.   Yet these enterprises have been operating, charging customers up to $20 per meal – thus the cease and desist order.   However, there are currently events scheduled and reservations being taken for meals coming up this week, so following laws is given short shrift.  One enterprising fellow, not part of the Foodnome group, was cited recently after ignoring his own cease and desist order, after students were showing up ill from eating tainted food delivered from the trunk of his car after being prepared in a home kitchen.  He was selling meal plans to mainly international students and using Rice Lane as his drop off delivery location.   To my knowledge, Riverside has  approved the start of these permits to start in June (per their ordinance Riverside County Ordinance 949) and involves licensing, permit fees, inspections, etc. before they can begin, so its a bit early to say that this is being successfully implemented.   There is also pending new legislation – AB 377 – working its way through the State legislature.

        But there is no discussion of this by the City of Davis of the establishment of restaurants in residential areas, the issuance of a business license to operate within the City, and no discussion of who is going to issue citations for non-compliance of any ordinance.  Can the County really control and direct these permits for the City and have the Yolo County Sheriff’s department be responsible for enforcement when necessary?

        1. Sharla Cheney

          Just an additional note – AB 377 directs that, if the County approves an ordinance permitting microenterprise kitchens, the City has no jurisdiction.  I see that the permitting, licensing and enforcement is solely the domain of the County, without any City of Davis planning/council/law enforcement involvement.

           

        2. Isaac O'Leary

          Sharla, of course! Food safety is absolutely paramount in this this discussion, and, in fact, is the very reason that AB 626 exists. The nonprofit COOK Alliance’s data suggests there are more than 100,000 underground food operations throughout California. AB 626 creates the infrastructure to ensure that these operations are safe. In no way are we advocating for reckless or unsafe food handling. By supporting AB 626 we are hoping to further protect public health. AB 626 has been authorized as sufficiently guaranteeing food safety by the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health, as well as countless other top public health officials.

          As far as your points on county/city jurisdiction go, the logistics of these concerns have been largely answered by Riverside County’s Ordinance 949. There are valid questions, but they are by no means unanswerable. With all of the social, economic, and health benefits that this law offers, we would do well to take this law very seriously.

          I appreciate your feedback and engagement with this issue!

           

           

        3. Leo Qiu

          Hi, Sharle.

          Food safety is everyone’s concern, no one want to sell bad food knowingly for profit. Let’s take your example, and dive deeper on why that problem exists.

          First, the reason people are buying food illegal in Davis is that there is a lack of food diversity. Davis residents will not go out of their ways to buy Thai food because there are 5 Thai restaurants in town.

          But the question you might ask is how do we increase food diversity in a densely packed, super expensive downtown owned by a few restaurant owners? How could we serve Northern Chinese food to only a small group of people who would buy them? We need a place for smaller business to grow which serve smaller demographics. The only scalable model is for people to serve in their home kitchen or commercial community kitchen spaces.

          Then the question you may have is how do we make sure people do not sell bad food in their trunk? I believe if you pave a path to legalize home kitchen, people will follow the rules and procedures defined by law. The problem now is there is no way for people to do this legally and there are no guidelines, therefore they are doing it at their own will with made up rules in their head. Once Yolo county creates these guidelines, the different platforms will adapt to them and require them upon sign up. If both cooks are selling the same food, one is backed by the county and another isn’t, people will naturally go to the one with county permits.

           

        4. Jim Hoch

          Now that Thai Nakorn has taken a nose dive in quality there are no good Thai restaurants at all. And there is no Bei Fong Ren food at all. The place on 5th used to have some but they changed the owner and that is gone.

    3. Richard McCann

      Sharla

      We want restaurants in our residential areas! Residential only zoning is stifling the vitality of our city and community. These businesses will allow us to bring community back to our neighborhoods. We should not try to drive all of our business downtown. That is a major error. Look at the truly vital communities that are well established, and you will find mixed use throughout the neighborhoods. Residential only are sterile with little interaction and cohesiveness.

      As for food trucks–Davis effectively prohibits them (see the FED report for more on that.) In fact, I suggest that you read the FED report closely before you comment any further. https://www.landandladle.com/davis-food-discussions

      Another fact is that addition of food trucks and micro food outlets has actually led to increased restaurant sales through increased customer interest in dining. These are not a threat to existing restaurants, but rather an opportunity.

      An important bottom line is that if Davis restaurants offered a wider range of cuisine and quality they would not have to be concerned with competition from these enterprises. Unfortunately, almost all of our restaurants are aimed at lowest common denominator college fare. (A situation that does not exist in many other college towns.)

  2. Kenji BlouinIto

    Yolo County is at the center of Ag innovation. That being said it would be an ideal place for home restaurants and this new movement that has potential to go nationwide. See you on Wednesday for the rally.

  3. Alan Miller

    OK, stop with the health “permits” will make the public safer BS.

    I have gotten violently ill (as in — could see the Pearly Gates ill) from food poisoning, three times from downtown Davis restaurants over the years.  I’m not going to name names as two of them are still in business.  One I still go to after having had a long talk with the owner.  All I’m sure were certified restaurants by the health department.  One, no longer in business in Davis, was a major national chain.

    I also know of a festival that had numerous people come down with mono one year — traced to a food booth where all the sick had eaten, a booth that had a health “permit”.  Another time a well-established business in Davis with a health permit had a booth a different festival, and I’d volunteered to help prepare the food — instead of using their kitchen, I was sent to someone’s house, and us volunteers cut up the ingredients for the salsa on her gross and moldy-cracks kitchen counter from which she scooped the salsa off into buckets.  I had to warn friends at that festival to stay away from the [un-named] booth!

    Point is, permits don’t stop food poisoning nor unsanitary practices, but they do cost money.  Really, we can only hope to trust the integrity of those who prepare our food not to forget to wash their hands after they poop.  I’ll take my chances with a home-based food prep, and call it about even-odds for my chances with a downtown restaurant.

     

    1. Richard McCann

      Absolutely agree. The more important point is that Foodnome operations will have a self-enforcing aspect that doesn’t exist for restaurants. First, they get their business through word of mouth, not walk by, so reputation will be incredibly important. Second, Foodnome won’t want to carry businesses that have health and safety problems, so those will get dropped pretty quickly. I’m going to feel safer eating at these enterprises, not less safe.

  4. Leo Qiu

    Full disclosure, I work for Foodnome, so you may say I have special interests. But I’d like to share my story why I believe and work in Foodnome or any other companies that embrace the idea of AB626.

    I grew up in China, and came to the US when I was 17. The first thing I realized after moving here is people are far less “neighborly”. There is not much interaction even with neighbors who we live with for many years. I remember when I used to be able to walk down the street, order a dish of Chinese crepes or fried cold noodle, and share it with my brothers and share them with my neighborhood friends. Those are the typical spot where we would meet and hang out – around food.

    My second dad did not make much money back then in China, what he did to get extra income was to open a “pop up restaurant” near the middle school I went. He used to sell beef soup with rice, a recipe he invented himself. He was eventually able to open his own restaurant in a similar neighborhood. If it was not because of the relaxed food regulation, he would never able to do that.

    In the end, there are two things draw me into ab626 or foodnome. First is the community it could foster. I look forward to the days I could easily step into someone’s house to share a delicious meal with my neighbors. I look forward to hearing their life stories. Second is the economic growth to the lower and middle class because that’s where my family was in China, and we were able to benefit it.

    I think the food system like ab626 is long overdue, and it will become legal. The question is when and how! I hope my work in foodnome will continue to push this movement forward. Of course, I very much would like Foodnome and Yolo county to be apart from it. I also hope Yolo county could work with Foodnome to create a working solution for these home cooks, instead of some other platform coming in from Bay areas like Uber and Airbnb.

     

     

     

    1. Bill Marshall

      Thank for sharing… sincerely…

      Society needs to be protected from food-bourne pathogens… yet, if there are protections, over-regulation is not good for society…

      I’m unclear on the spectrum between existing regs, and the proposed legislation… but am very open to the discussion…

      But, again, thank you for your contribution to the discussion…

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