Riverside County is the first to take advantage of new state law that aims to create an entry point into the food industry for amateur chefs — especially immigrants, women and people of color.
Updated Nov. 8, 2019
Embedded in Kulwant Sanghu’s Punjabi dishes are the lessons she learned from her elders.
“My grandpa back home in India, he used to have [a] restaurant,” she said. “And I used to watch him all the time — how he’s doing it [and] what he’s doing.”
Now, Sanghu sells these dishes to her neighbors in Riverside County after California became one of the first states to legalize home kitchen businesses this year.
The law aims to create an entry point into the food industry for amateur chefs — especially immigrants, women and people of color. Cooks in California have been selling food under the radar for years, and for some it’s a vital source of income, even though they risked fines and criminal penalties. The home kitchen law creates a legal pathway for amateur chefs to sell their wares, and lowers the risk for them to try launching a food venture.
State lawmakers left it up to counties to implement the program and regulate home kitchens. So far, only Riverside County has started issuing permits, but proponents are optimistic the law will expand to other counties. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that clarified technical aspects of the law, mainly related to health oversight.
“Alameda County, San Francisco and San Bernardino are planning to start working towards an ordinance in the coming months,” said Matt Jorgensen, co-founder of The C.O.O.K. Alliance, an advocacy group that sponsored the 2018 home kitchen legislation.
Many are watching Riverside County as a test case. So far, the county has permitted more than 20 cooks offering a range of cuisines, including Asian fusion, soul food and Mexican BBQ.
Dottie Merki, deputy director of Riverside County’s Department of Environmental Health, says her staff has offered guidance to other counties interested in rolling out home kitchen programs.
She recommends those counties “develop their outreach not toward restaurant owners, but toward people who are just used to feeding their family,” and explain the additional food safety requirements for serving members of the public.
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An online platform called Foodnome has also established itself in Riverside to facilitate its burgeoning home kitchen industry. It allows cooks to showcase their menu and specials, similar to Yelp, and allows customers to order and review kitchens.
Founder Akshay Prabhu said he started the platform to help bring people together over home-cooked meals.
“They’re not cooking on a huge scale,” he said. “They’re cooking things with care and love, and making things in small batches. So it’s a really good way to facilitate community.”
He says he hopes to scale the platform statewide as more counties opt in, and across the country if other states pass home kitchen laws.
Foodnome has also started hosting pop-up events to help home cooks introduce their dishes to more customers. On a recent Friday evening, Sanghu brought her Punjabi cooking to the kitchen at Arcade Coffee Roasters in the city of Riverside.
DeeDee Ballasteros stopped by with her husband, Tomás, even though she was a little skeptical of the home kitchen concept at first. But when she learned the county regulates and certifies them, she decided to give it a shot.
After a plate of Sanghu’s chicken tikka and basmati rice, the nutrition coach and mother of two said she’s open to trying other home kitchens in Riverside.
“The food was delicious,” she said. “Definitely, I would do it again.”
But some opposition remains.
Kathy Shin, an attorney for the city of West Hollywood, says the law gives counties too much control over kitchen programs, which could create zoning problems that cities have to deal with.
“Traffic impacts, parking, potentially noise and smells — these are all concerns that are traditionally addressed through local land use authority,” she said.
She adds that West Hollywood isn’t necessarily against home kitchens, but says the city should have more regulatory control.
Back in Sanghu’s kitchen, she dunks her samosas filled with peas, potatoes and herbs into a vat of hot oil. A typical evening brings in around eight orders; on busy nights, she’ll get up to 15.
California’s law lets the home chefs sell up to 60 meals per week and gross up to $50,000 in revenue per year. The limits are meant to keep kitchens from evolving into bustling restaurants in residential neighborhoods.
Sanghu says her kitchen business supplements the income from her full-time job at a medical device company. But she imagines it could someday lead to something more.
“Maybe in the future, I’d like to go to college to learn [to] do the preparation and all those things the professional way,” she said. “So maybe later on, I can have my own restaurant.”
John Hudson, manager of Simple Simon’s Bakery and Bistro in downtown Riverside, believes the home kitchen program is a great first step for amateur chefs looking to open their own place.
“Opening a restaurant is not only costly, but sometimes impossible to keep it going,” he said. “And if you don’t have a good product, then you’re not going to make it. And this is a good way for people to figure that out.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said California was the first state to legalize home kitchens. In fact it is one of the first to legalize the sale of meals from the home.
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.
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