Why The Cottage Food Law Is A Game Changer For Talented Home Cooks

Fresh tamales on Oct. 8, 2012 in Somerville, Massachusetts. (Tim Sackton/Flickr Creative Commons)

Whether you're selling homemade tamales as a primary source of income or peddling gingerbread Rice Krispie Treats to your coworkers, you've probably been doing it illegally — until now.

This week, California governor Jerry Brown signed the Cottage Food Bill, officially known as AB-626. The new law allows cooks who have prepared food in their home kitchens to legally sell those items. Up to now, that had been outlawed because of health concerns.

Written by Eduardo Garcia, who reps the 56th State Assembly district out in eastern Riverside County (that'd be the Coachella area), the new law regulates — or should we say deregulates? — "microenterprise home kitchen operations."

That's a potential game-changer for talented home cooks, people who run small-scale food operations and can't necessarily afford to rent space in a commercial kitchen, which often costs thousands of dollars.

Here's what you need to know about the new law.

Chocolate chunk cookies. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Housing Works)

Can people start monetizing their food businesses right away?
No. The law doesn't go into effect until January 1, 2019 so maybe wait until then.

Have authorities cracked down on people doing this?
Yes. In 2016, Mariza Ruelas of Stockton faced jail time for selling her homemade ceviche through Facebook. She was one of several people, most of them women, who authorities nabbed in a sting.

Authorities are going undercover to ferret out people who sell homemade food?
Yes. Enjoy your tax dollars at work.

What should people do to make their home food business legal?
They'll need to apply for a permit for their "microenterprise home kitchen" with the city and/or county (AB-626 doesn't specify). After they get the permit, they can start selling right away — after January 1, 2019.

A detail of a cottage and rural scene prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games in London, England. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Are there any limits on how home chefs can sell food?
Yes! They can't sell more than "30 individual meals per day" or "60 individual meals per week" although the bill doesn't define precisely what that means for people who aren't selling complete meals. They have to sell their food directly to customers and not through any wholesaler or retailer. They can't have more than one "full-time equivalent" employee. And they can't make more than $50,000 in verifiable gross annual sales. So don't get too successful — or do and scale up to a commercial kitchen and become a mega-successful food entrepreneur.

What about apps and websites that offer the food of multiple home chefs?
Several companies have tried to become the "Uber of home cooking" and most have failed, often because states and counties don't allow home cooks to sell their goods. AB 626 requires any app or website operating in this space to play by certain rules. These tech companies will have to post on their apps or websites, the permitting requirements for microenterprise home kitchens. If a vendor on one of these apps or sites receives three or more food safety or hygiene complaints in a calendar year from customers on the app, companies will have to submit that vendor's name and permit number to local officials.

What regulations do home chefs not have to worry about?
AB-626 exempts home food producers from certain rules that apply to commercial restaurants, like requiring a three-compartment sink. Because who has that at home? Other prohibitions — like not having kitchens that open directly into living spaces and no animals in or near the kitchen — also won't apply to home chefs.

Are there any risks to the cottage food law?
Potentially, yes. Several medical organizations and county associations say the likelihood of catching foodborne illnesses will go up.

What happens if people get sick from food sold by home cooks?
If local officials start getting complaints, these micro-businesses can expect a visit from the health department.

Popular Mexican wrestler Super Astro shows his "torta de tamal" during a traditional event for Candelaria (Candlemas) Day, on February 2, 2017. (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)


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