MEHKO: No enterprise too small to contribute to a more inclusive economy

Anna (left), her daughter Fanny, and Fanny’s two sons

Anna (left), her daughter Fanny, and Fanny’s two sons

 

If there’s one place where Anna feels confident, it’s in her home kitchen: patiently rolling out the dough for her pastel goreng crust, sauteing onion and garlic to fill her risoles, scooping generous helpings of macaroni panggang for the guests she’s cooking for—sometimes friends, sometimes neighbors, sometimes her two grown daughters or her daughters’ young sons.

As Anna raised her children, she perfected the cooking methods her own mother taught her in Indonesia. Raising her family on traditional Indonesian food was a comforting way to include their cultural heritage in daily life after immigrating to the United States. Now a grandmother and a U.S. resident, Anna sees her cooking taking on a new purpose. 

Anna is one of hundreds of San Diego County residents aspiring to build a microenterprise with their home cooking. In her case, friends and acquaintances eagerly await to place “orders” for her signature potluck dishes for their birthday parties and baby showers. Others around San Diego peddle homemade tamales, hummus, and frozen dumplings around their offices; hobbyist chefs and personal trainers have begun experimenting with healthy meal delivery, for clientele that include millennials in the era of meal prep, and the senior citizen community.

The cooks are often women, immigrants filling a cultural gap in their local food scene, and folks who work other primary jobs but supplement incomes with their cooking.

When describing the reception her mother’s food receives around their community, Anna’s daughter Fanny recalls, “Almost all the time—actually all the time—our neighbors and friends tell us that [my mom’s] Indonesian food is the best. California has a significant Indonesian population, but in Southern California there are only a few Indonesian restaurants that are Indonesian-owned, in the LA area. I know there’s a demand for Indonesian food here in San Diego and we want to serve that demand.”

Some may find it shocking, then, that there’s currently no regulatory framework in place for selling food made in home kitchens outside of Cottage Food Law, which permits sales of only non-perishable items such as baked goods, potato chips, and preserves.

That’s why AB 626 (the “Homemade Food Operations Act”) and its cleanup bill AB377 are now gaining support from the home cook world. While already passed into State law, the bill has yet to be “opted in” or implemented by any other County in the state besides Riverside. If implemented in San Diego County, AB 626/377 will help protect and legitimize the microenterprises of home cooks like Anna, by establishing “MEHKOs”—Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations—a proposed permit category for a food facility that is operated by a resident in a private home.

In 2018, when California State legislators passed AB 626, Fanny took notice. As a trained Software Engineer, Fanny had been following the startup technology company Josephine, which offered an online platform for home cooks like her mother to post their menus for the day, for others to purchase. Realizing that the broad lack of regulatory framework in home cooking was a major hurdle for home cooks to operate safely and legally, not to mention for their app to grow, Josephine’s founders transitioned into an advocacy organization, now known as the COOK Alliance, supporting the passage and implementation of AB 626.

Now, Fanny is advocating for San Diego County’s implementation of AB 626/377, on her mother’s behalf. “MEHKO permitting is valuable for home cooks testing their model before getting to the level of catering. It’s the best setup for someone who wants to cook part-time. My mom doesn’t want to cook full time. It can be tough on her,” Fanny says. It is difficult for beginning entrepreneurs to start new food businesses within San Diego. “Catering needs to be done in a commercial kitchen, which requires extensive set-up costs, insurance, permits, etc. It’s not the practical option for a part-time home cook who simply wants to expand upon a hobby, earn some supplemental income, and serve community needs.”

“I’ve recently even tried to find a shared commercial kitchen space for another home-cooking friend, but we were denied by the kitchens we approached,” Fanny continues. “They said, ‘Sorry, we don’t accept your kind of business or food.’” Fanny believes that MEHKO permitting paves the way for an alternative avenue that makes more sense for smaller operations, allowing them to legitimize their homemade food sales, market without fear of breaking the law, and thrive as the small enterprises that they are.

Beyond simply affording residents around San Diego County peace of mind and a stepping stone to potential business growth, the passage of AB 626/377 also presents one way the food system can be more fair and equitable. As small as they may be (and AB 626/377 stipulates a limit on gross annual income for MEHKOs, in order to not undercut established restaurant businesses), these microenterprises do offer added income where it matters. The bit of additional revenue from a cooking gig may just be the bridge to economic stability for some people, especially the immigrant population.

Fanny says, “When you have people coming from a so-called ‘third world country,’ there’s an initial education gap on how people can better their lives. If we are concerned about immigrants, we have to see what skills they bring with them upon immigration, upon arrival to the country. Most of the women—they know how to cook. This is the skill they bring.” 

Janice Luna Reynoso, a fellow advocate for home cooks, agrees. “Families should have an appropriate, legal avenue for benefiting from their creative talent and sharing their cultural cuisines. There needs to be fewer barriers for individuals to thrive in this popular market of selling homemade food for gatherings and exchanging culture with neighbors in their communities.”

“In my community [National City], we’ve had so many challenges with food access and negative impacts on our health by the system doing the opposite of that. The bringing of franchises and fast food⁠ has especially impacted our community here in the South Bay⁠, more than anywhere else in the county⁠.

“I’d like to see the opportunity for individuals and families to make food and earn income instead, to not only grow their businesses, but also to simply not be punished for spreading their home cooking practices⁠—which are usually more health-conscious and culturally vibrant—amongst their communities.”

Fanny echoes this sentiment. “When you buy local or direct from a neighbor, you immediately affect the family. If you buy from a franchise, a very significant portion goes to corporate.” 

Enabling individuals to conduct dignified, legal, and profitable business as food micro-entrepreneurs, and not be criminalized for these activities, contributes to a more just and inclusive food system. Home cooks and advocates like Fanny and her mom, as well as members of the San Diego Food System Alliance, believe that Countywide implementation of AB 626/377 can help make this happen.

To learn more about home cooks, AB 626/377, where the bill currently stands and how to get involved, follow this link to our FAQ page on the topic.