A political battle is brewing in my California kitchen – San Bernardino Sun

(Courtesy of Karen Santos)

Guests get more than food when they come to my home for dinner. They get a taste of community.

My live-work unit at L Twelve Loft Space serves as a hub for artists, musicians and book lovers in the heart of East Oakland. I host events ranging from dance workshops to game nights, while serving original dishes with Latino and African American influences – an expression of my ethnic heritage as a Bay Area native.

The micro restaurant I call Pimpin Chkn comes without a set menu. I like to change things. The offerings on any given night might include deep-fried pickles, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, tacos, brisket, ribs, and chicken slathered with sauces I began to develop in my youth.

The venture launched in 2020 would not have been possible without two major catalysts. The first was COVID-19. I was working as a chef when the pandemic forced many restaurants to close, so I was laid off. Left with no other source of income, I started cooking at home for my neighbors. Word spread and new business emerged.

The second catalyst was California’s 2018 law authorizing micro-home kitchen enterprise (MEHKO) operations. The measure, passed in Alameda County in 2020, allows home cooks to sell meals prepared in their own kitchens directly to the public.

All 50 states and Washington, DC allow people to sell “cottage food,” which refers to food prepared at home for sale. California was an early adopter, passing one of the nation’s first homegrown food laws in 2012.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that supports food entrepreneurs, filed lawsuits in Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere to challenge the final denials. More recently, Rhode Island has expanded cottage food options for everyone—not just farmers. Still, even with statewide adoption, most jurisdictions limit in-house food sales to shelf-stable products that don’t require refrigeration, such as cookies and bread.

Meat dishes are almost everywhere prohibited. Still, MEHKO contractors in participating California counties can sell almost anything after passing a home inspection and completing mandatory training. The result is a deeply personal dining experience. When I open my doors to my neighbors, my kitchen becomes their kitchen.

California deserves respect. But the MEHKO law that empowers me also holds me back.

Under current rules, I can’t raise more than $50,000 in gross annual revenue, which leaves little room for profit after expenses are deducted. I also cannot serve more than 60 meals per week. I often have to turn down potential partners who want to host events in my unit. Another time we have to go without food. My house is full, but my kitchen remains empty.

Artificial restrictions keep my business small. In order to survive, I have to continue working as a chef in a traditional restaurant. But my dream is to grow Pimpin Chkn into a full-time venture.

AB 1325 will allow me to take the next step. The bipartisan measure, created by Assemblymembers Marie Waldron and Eduardo Garcia, would raise the MEHKO sales cap to $100,000 per year and the meal cap to 90 meals per week.

The expansion could turn neighborhoods across the state into hotbeds of innovation. Economic growth would be especially welcome in California’s “food deserts,” which lack convenient access to grocery stores and restaurants. Neighbors could find affordable food without having to travel far or pay delivery fees.

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