The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday unanimously to take the first step toward allowing micro-enterprise home kitchens in the county, as part of a temporary program.
Participating via teleconference, supervisors approved the first reading of an ordinance to let home kitchens, or "MEHKOs,'' operate for a two-year period. The second ordinance reading will come during board's land use meeting on Jan. 26. If the board then votes in favor, MEHKOs will be allowed to operate 30 days after that.
The MEHKO ordinance includes requirements or operational provisions for categories including food safety certificate, allowable food storage areas, the number of MEHKOs allowed per residence, potable water and ongoing testing.
Supervisor Nora Vargas first proposed allowing MEHKOs last September along with colleague Joel Anderson. According to Anderson and Vargas, MEHKO benefits include:
- significant economic opportunities for small-scale, home-cooking operations, which are primarily operated by women, immigrants, and people of color;
- encouraging existing "informal'' home food operations to become safer and legal;
- enabling family members to continue providing in-home care for developmentally disabled and/or older relatives while still earning much-needed income;
- creating another path to supplementing family income for those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic;
- letting aspiring restaurateurs to try out a menu while learning the basics of what it takes to run a small-scale retail food operation;
- providing additional food service options in remote locations; and
- kitchen operators paying state taxes and acquiring business licenses
"We have an opportunity to uplift non-traditional entrepreneurs who have been part of a non-traditional economy that has existed for decades, Vargas said Wednesday.
"This policy is going to remove barriers,'' she said, adding the county "can make true transformational change'' while also supporting delicious cooking. Anderson said 24 MEHKOs are operating around the state. He added that the home kitchens aren't direct competition with brick-and-mortar restaurants, but instead "allow people a way to move forward if their menu works.''
For example, he said, it's unlikely that anyone would drive from Alpine to Del Mar to patronize a MEHKO.
"On every level, I just believe this is a terrific program,'' Anderson added.
Supervisor Jim Desmond said that while he is happy to support a temporary program, he had a lot of concerns about MEHKOs initially, as established restaurants are already struggling. He added that mayors he spoke to were concerned about various factors of home kitchen operations, including homeowners' associations, business license requirements and whether alcohol would be served.
A trial home kitchen program will give the county time to answer questions that constituents and municipal governments may have, Desmond added.
Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said cities can gather the needed data that will help the county track any potential challenges arising from MEHKOs. She also proposed that Helen Robbins-Meyer, county chief administrative officer, educate other regional jurisdictions on issues such as traffic, noise and compliance.
Lawson-Remer added that Riverside County has a MEHKO program, and "it
has been positive for everyone.''
During a brief public comment period, over a dozen people weighed in on the proposal. While most were supportive, one man said allowing home kitchens could harm brick-and-mortar diners.
A MEHKO operator gets to cherry-pick hours, and faces reduced health and safety regulations, he said.
"This proposal can only be considered as an anti-small business proposal,'' said the man, who asked supervisors to thoroughly review the ordinance before green-lighting it.
Rosalind Johnson, owner of San Diego-based Clara's Kitchen, urged the board to vote yes "so we can take care of each other.'' Johnson said she was cooking from her home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and received a cease-and-desist letter from the county.
"I'm one of those people who got shut down,'' Johnson said, adding home kitchens are needed in numerous communities.
According to Anderson's office, the model for home kitchen operations was introduced in the state Legislature in 2018, and allows counties to authorize permitted home kitchens through an ordinance. There are also limitations, including that the food must be sold on the same day it was prepared, and an annual earning cap of $50,000.
"Of the more than 140 MEHKOs currently operating in the state of California, there have been no known incidences of food-borne illness, nor any issues around the disposal of food waste,'' according to Anderson's office.