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A couple months ago, Mia Underwood was in a tough spot. She’d quit her job as a pastry chef in San Francisco right before the pandemic, and decided to put her training from Houston’s Culinary Institute Lenotre toward selling her own baked goods. She re-started Onyx Hippie, a small baking company she launched years ago. Underwood said selling baked treats has been a side hustle of hers since she was a kid growing up in Houston, Texas.
“I’m what you call a powerhouse,” Underwood said with confidence during a recent interview.
Over the summer, she hosted pop-ups at the Bottoms Up Community Garden in West Oakland, where she sold her lavender lemon poppy seed bread and other favorites made with ingredients picked from community gardens. “I really knew I needed to focus on my own business, and then COVID happened, so I didn’t have a choice,” Underwood said.
She started out baking everything in her home kitchen, which is currently not permitted by Alameda County without a cottage food permit. In late August, a neighbor reported Underwood to the Alameda County Environmental Health Department for hosting an unsanctioned pop-up bake sale. Although the health department didn’t shut her down, Underwood was livid.
“We found out that a lady in the neighborhood—we’ll just call her ‘Gentrifying Sue’—had called them. She put it on Nextdoor that she called the health inspector,” Underwood said. Underwood said she used protective equipment like masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer and took other safety precautions while preparing for and hosting the sale.
Operating without a permit mandated by the California Retail Food Code can result in a fine or a misdemeanor offense, which can lead to being imprisoned in county jail for up to six months. The county doesn’t specify fine amounts online.
“The California Retail Food Code provides for a penalty of three-times the established permit fee based on the type of operation. So the amount is not really set in stone but depends on the operation and what is similar in our permit fee/program element schedule,” Neetu Balram, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Environmental Health Department, told the Oaklandside.
Underwood isn’t the only local food entrepreneur who’s faced potential legal sanctions for making food in a home kitchen and selling or giving it away on the street, without a license. The Alameda County Department of Public Health recently shut down the high-profile, short-lived pop-up Broke Ass Cooks, which sold mouth-watering jerk chicken out of a backyard. Founders Bilal Ali, Keone Koki, and Hoang Le released a video on their Instagram page expressing their frustration with the situation. “We were hoping this wasn’t going to happen,” Le said in the video to their followers.
Ali added that the trio had been transparent about starting the pop-up to financially support themselves; all three chefs had been laid off from restaurant jobs due to COVID. “There’s nothing to go back to at this point,” he said in the video. “You shouldn’t have to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to start your dream.” The Broke Ass Cooks founders promised their followers they would return, though they didn’t specify when.
The movement to legalize vending of home-cooked food
The Broke Ass Cooks closure, Underwood’s close call, and other similar incidents have brought renewed attention to the issue of unlicensed food vending, especially by small-scale vendors who cook in their homes and sell on the street or in temporary spaces. The pandemic has led many cooks and entrepreneurs to start food companies in their kitchens as a means of earning money.
Two years ago, state lawmakers took steps to make this easier.
Assembly Bill 626 was signed into law in 2018, amending California’s food retail code to include “Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations,” allowing individuals who obtain permits to prepare food at home for commercial use. Such chefs can legally make up to $50,000 a year in home-prepared food sales.
In many California counties, however, home cooking is still illegal. Although AB 626 was approved across the state, the law goes into effect locally only if a county chooses to adopt it. As of now, only Riverside County has embraced AB 626. Alameda County hasn’t.
On Monday, October 12, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Health Committee will discuss AB 626. Supervisor Wilma Chan, who oversees parts of Oakland and is chair of the Alameda County Health Committee, is in favor of implementing the law.
“She would like to see home cooks have the opportunity to provide meals for those in the community in Alameda County,” Dave Brown, Chan’s chief of staff, told The Oaklandside. “Supervisor Chan believes the Board of Supervisors should have the opportunity to weigh in on this sooner than later.”
For Matt Jorgensen, Oakland-based home cook and founder of home-cooking advocacy group Cook Alliance, fighting to get AB 626 on the books in Alameda County has been a long battle. Jorgenson founded Cook Alliance in 2018 after county health officials closed down his home-cooking startup venture, Josephine.
Before COVID, it looked like Alameda County was headed toward adopting AB 626. If that happened, Cook Alliance was ready to launch a fund to provide business startup grants and hands-on entrepreneurship training to aspiring home cooks. Then, the pandemic hit. “COVID sort of slowed down our conversations about implementation with supervisors across the state, including Alameda County,” Jorgensen said.
Critics of AB 626 say the law has downsides that could end up harming low-income people. They worry that venture capitalists will use the law to cash in on the home-cooking business by turning chefs into gig workers with low wages and no employee benefits. Although home cooks come from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom are most affected by the current cottage food laws are from underserved communities.
“As a labor justice organization, the Cook Alliance is working to transform an historically low-wage exploitative industry,” Jorgensen said. His organization wrote a long list of requirements for what he referred to as “Internet intermediaries” into AB 626 to include a prohibition on 3rd party delivery companies in an effort to avoid an exploitative scenario. “In the 21st century, this doesn’t mean no tech companies, but it does mean cooks owning their data and customer relationships, and being the face of their home restaurants.”
While the Cook Alliance eagerly awaits Alameda County’s decision, they have continued to answer home chefs’ questions via their Facebook page. According to Jorgensen, people mainly want to know if they can legally sell food they make out of their homes, but many people are also seeking advice about running a small business.
“Unfortunately, as an organization that’s founded on selling home-cooked meals, there’s only so much we can do to help cooks start those businesses before it’s actually legal to do so,” said Jorgensen.
In the meantime, one helpful resource is the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health’s FAQ regarding the rules that pop-up food stands currently have to follow.
Before the pandemic, Jorgensen said people who were interested in starting a home kitchen business or renting commercial kitchens to make food for a pop-up were largely stay-at-home parents, retirees, and those who wanted to feed their communities. “Now, there are so many laid-off professional chefs, and we’re seeing all of those folks as well doing informal pop-ups because they can’t work at a restaurant,” Jorgensen said.
Adapting to the current food retail laws
One of these professional chefs, Underwood, currently works at a vegan restaurant, Gay4U, in West Oakland. But she said operating Onyx Hippie is still a matter of survival in order to pay her bills, and that trying to succeed as a Black woman food entrepreneur is especially daunting. “Being a Black woman doing this kind of work, you need to dot your I’s, cross your T’s, walk up to people, get to know them, and let them know who you are before anything occurs,” Underwood said.
At first, Underwood prepared her baked goods at home, but later used the money she made from her first pop-ups to rent Gay4U’s kitchen space when the restaurant is closed. Shortly after, the team in charge of Bottoms Up Community Garden allowed her to work out of their preexisting kitchen, which was the result of a $10,000 grant awarded to them by a neighbor.
As a professional chef who understands how dangerous food poisoning can be, Underwood has mixed feelings about implementing AB 626, especially for home cooking. “The first lesson we learned at culinary school is that you have the potential to kill people. You always have to remember that,” she said. “A lot of these kitchen chefs haven’t taken the necessary steps or classes to know what they’re doing. They just know they cooked something and it tasted good, so they’re going to sell it.”
If Alameda County chooses to implement AB 626, Underwood said the health department needs to inspect home chefs’ kitchens the same way they would inspect a typical restaurant.
But running a pop-up has been a rewarding experience, Underwood said. She’s grateful for the community she’s built since focusing on growing the Onyx Hippie brand in Oakland. “I didn’t even know the beauty of West Oakland until COVID because I was at work all the time,” she said about the long shifts at her old job in San Francisco. “Right now, everything is about community, and we all offer something different.”
Correction: The original version of this story stated that the Bottoms Up Community Garden kitchen was created recently to help Underwood’s business. The kitchen has existed for several years and was the result of a $10,000 grant. Chef Mia Underwood was allowed to use the existing kitchen after moving her operation out of her home.