Alameda County just paved the way for more food pop-ups

Alameda County officials are pushing forward a plan to allow home cooks to turn their kitchens into small restaurants — despite resistance from the health department.

County supervisors Wilma Chan and Keith Carson agreed during a health committee meeting Monday morning that allowing people to sell food from their homes is crucial during the pandemic, a time when many traditional restaurants are struggling and laying off cooks. They expressed concern over a rise in illegal enterprises with no way to regulate them, instructing the health department to come up with a plan next month.

“There’s going to be an increased desperation to figure out a way to survive and that’s where the underground economy is going to continue to explode,” Carson said.

California passed AB 626 in 2018, legalizing so-called “microenterprise home kitchen operations” but requiring counties to opt in. So far, only Riverside County has successfully issued permits. A few others, including San Mateo and Solano counties, have opted in but not developed a permitting process. Public interest in AB 626 has grown in recent weeks as multiple high-profile pop-ups by laid-off chefs got shut down by Alameda County health inspectors.

Advocates say other Bay Area counties may follow Alameda County’s lead if it can move the process along and become the second in the state to issue permits.

“There’s a phenomenon where everyone is worried about being early, so we’re hoping for a domino effect,” said Matt Jorgensen, founder of advocacy nonprofit the Cook Alliance. “We’re more optimistic than we have been in a while about some quick progress now that it’s seen in the frame of urgent response to the pandemic and all the layoffs and all the hurt people are feeling.”

But the health committee meeting on Monday included a formal recommendation from Ronald Browder, the director of the Department of Environmental Health, to delay any decisions about legalizing home kitchens for at least a year. He pointed to the lack of other counties creating permitting processes as a reason for concern, arguing that many food-borne illness outbreaks happen during home food preparation.

He expressed concern over developing adequate inspections and enforcement for food safety, and also pointed out potential issues around creating commercial facilities in residential neighborhoods. There could be building and fire code violations, he said, as well as traffic and parking issues for neighbors if 30 people drive to a house for lunch. More fats and oils, he said, could go into the sewer lines, while outdoor barbecues could contribute to smoke.

“I do understand the economic situation we’re in and how we’re trying to help out community, but this is something that needs to be thought about a little bit longer,” Browder said.

Supervisors Chan and Carson acknowledged Browder’s concerns but told him to bring more research and an implementation plan to the health committee meeting on Nov. 23.

Hoang Le approaches a car waiting for food from Broke Ass Cooks. The popular pop-up was shut down by health inspectors, but it could return in the coming months if Alameda County officials develop a permitting process for home kitchens.

AB 626 is a major expansion of 2012’s California Homemade Food Act, which allowed home cooks to sell jams, baked goods and other low-risk foods. If Alameda County opts into AB 626, home cooks will also be able to serve hot perishable foods as long as they obtain food safety certification and agree to home kitchen inspections. The goal was to decriminalize a lot of informal businesses that already exist and encourage cooks to use their home kitchens as a stepping stone — cooks can gross a maximum of $50,000 per year off of 60 meals a week.

Jorgensen feels confident Alameda County will opt into AB 626, but he’s worried that the building of permitting infrastructure will hold up progress, as has been the case in Solano County. He hopes Alameda County supervisors will create a firm implementation timeline to avoid months of delays, even if that means some specific aspects — like figuring out a way to offset permit costs for low-income applicants — aren’t developed yet. In Riverside, the permits cost about $650.

In the past five years, thousands of home cooks in Alameda County have expressed interest in the program, according to Jorgensen. The big constraint will be the speed of the permitting process. Currently, 60 microenterprise home kitchens are permitted in Riverside County.

“Not having another monthly rent to pay on top of our outrageous Bay Area rent would be a blessing and a relief for people like me, who have been wiped off of their feet by COVID and are having to start back up from the beginning again,” said chef Mona Leena Michael, whose Palestinian pop-up was shut down last month, in a statement. “I know that technically what I was doing was not legal, but my intention wasn’t to always do business that way. It was meant to be a stepping stone to a place where I could afford start-up costs.”

But the demand for AB 626 isn’t just coming from cooks — neighbors also want more options for prepared foods during the coronavirus, said Joe Acanfora, a home cook in Oakland, who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion. Last year, he and his partner would typically serve Vietnamese meals to 25 neighbors per day under the radar, but that number tripled once the pandemic hit. People are sticking around their neighborhoods more now, and at the same time, many traditional restaurants have closed.

“I’m disappointed that the health department for almost two years now hasn’t moved off basic problem identification,” he said. “I think it’s time to move, it’s time to find a way to say yes to help people earn a living in this difficult time.”

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @janellebitker

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