You Can Now Sell Meals Out Of Your Own Kitchen — If You Live In Riverside County

Meghan McConaghy Chane prepares a dessert in her home kitchen in Eastvale, California, July 3, 2019. (David Wagner/KPCC)

Last year, California passed a new law allowing home cooks to sell meals out of their own kitchens.

But, unless you live in Riverside County, don't get too excited about turning your kitchen skills into a lucrative side hustle. Every other county in the state has so far declined to move forward with permitting for home cooks.

Advocates are hoping Riverside County's lead will show other parts of the state that the new law can bring economic benefits without sacrificing food safety.

'YOU SHOULD SELL THIS'

Meghan McConaghy Chane, a stay-at-home mom in the Riverside County city of Eastvale, is the first person in the state permitted to run a home restaurant — officially known under the law as a Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operation, or MEHKO.

Chane passed her kitchen inspection last month, but she hasn't sold any food yet. She recently invited customers to her home for what she describes as a "healthy twist on classic comfort food." But she canceled the event because she wasn't feeling well and didn't want to risk getting anyone sick.

"That wouldn't be good," Chane said. "Could you see the headlines? 'Outbreak At The First Permitted MEHKO Kitchen.'"

Chane hasn't always been an avid home cook. She started getting serious when her husband became a professional chef two and a half years ago. She didn't want him to come home and have to cook even more.

"Then a friend of mine got sick, and she was doing chemotherapy," Chane said. "She had a family and kids. So I told her that I'd cook for her one or two days a week. And she was like, 'You should sell this.'"

Chane wasn't ready to take the risk of starting a restaurant, but she liked the idea of selling her food on a small scale. She got involved with advocates pushing for the new state law, and she had her application ready the moment Riverside opted into it.

Getting her permit was fairly straightforward. She didn't need to make any major alterations to her kitchen. Riverside County's Department of Environmental Health required her to come up with a more methodical way of sanitizing dishes and cookware, and she had to put paper towels in her bathroom for customers to use.

"I guess that's more sanitary than using the cloth towel," Chane said. "But no, there was not a major overhaul of my kitchen."

Chane promotes her business on Foodnome, a website that aims to help users find home-cooked meals for sale in their area.

She said Foodnome has helped by taking professional-looking photos of her food and promoting her business to customers in the area. In return, Foodnome plans to make money by charging customers on its platform a 10% to 15% service fee.

Foodnome was founded in Davis, but the company has partially relocated to Riverside County to focus on growing the number of permitted home cooks on its website.

Foodnome cook organizer Isaac O'Leary said the company is trying to distinguish itself from other home-cooked meal websites that have disregarded the rules laid out under the new state law.

"Our end goal is to have all the counties in California opt into this legislation," O'Leary said. "Counties are looking to early successes in Riverside as they implement this bill."

HOME COOKS IN L.A. WILL STAY UNDERGROUND, FOR NOW

Though it's hard to measure, Los Angeles already has a robust underground market for home-made meals. Cooks working out of their own kitchens are meeting demand for tamales, dumplings and other specialties — and running the risk of being cited by local health inspectors.

A spokesperson for L.A. County's Public Health department said many home cooks have expressed interest in getting a permit, but the department is currently not sanctioning the sale of home-cooked meals. Officials said they're watching the progress of a new state bill, AB 377, which would make some tweaks to home kitchen permitting.

In an emailed statement, health officials wrote that they'll move forward if it passes: "Upon enactment, the Public Health Department will recommend authorization to establish a permitting and inspection process for Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations by the Board of Supervisors for the County of Los Angeles."

Riverside County is just starting to permit more home kitchens. In addition to Chane, eight other aspiring cooks are going through the approval process.

Health officials there say applicants have to provide information about the kind of food they plan to sell, and they must demonstrate that their water system can handle increased load. Applicants also have to get a food safety manager certification, just like they would in other kinds of food establishments.

Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez pushed to allow permitted home cooks. He thinks informal small businesses should be allowed to come out of the shadows.

"Home kitchens have been happening now for generations and many successful businesses have started out this way," Perez said in a statement when Riverside County opted into the new state law.

Chane isn't planning to get rich off her home cooking. The state law restricts her from selling more than 60 meals per week, and her annual sales can't exceed $50,000. She hopes it will help her get to know her neighbors better. And if her food is a hit, she might consider expanding the business.

She and her husband have discussed this as "a stepping stone," she said. Further down the line they might start a catering business, a food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant.