The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many, especially those in the food industry. A report by the Independent Restaurant Coalition finds that 5.9 million restaurant jobs were lost between February and April of last year. And according to the National Restaurant Association, 17 percent of restaurants in the United States have closed permanently due to COVID-19.
While federal aid and local support aim to help brick-and mortars bounce back, some talented cooks and chefs have opted to build micro-businesses from home. This is what Assembly Bill (AB) 626 can provide: small restaurant enterprises in home kitchens. California signed AB 626 into law in September of 2018, and the law became effective on January 1st, 2019. AB 626 establishes a microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO) as a retail food facility, allowing an individual to operate a restaurant in their private residence. Cooks must prepare, cook, and serve customers on the same day, maintain a Food Manager’s certificate, and follow health and safety guidelines.
Long Beach hasn’t acted to implement AB 626, but the City does have the Homemade Food Act, which permits Cottage Food Operations (CFOs) to make and sell non-potentially hazardous foods and comply with the approved cottage food list. However, MEHKOs allow individuals to run a restaurant from their own home, not just sell individual small products.
Although this law is more encompassing than the Homemade Food Act, the catch with AB 626 is that each city or county must authorize the ordinance at its own discretion. As of right now, Riverside and Imperial Counties are the only two accepting and permitting MEHKOs, while others are still considering it. To date, Long Beach Fresh has surveyed over a hundred locals who’d love to start a home kitchen business, with many hopefuls aiming to cater to underserved residents, those with dietary constraints, and those who seek underrepresented cultural cuisines.
CFOs have been a great way for entrepreneurs to get started, especially for Vida Virgillito. Virgillito, chef and owner of Loco Litos and Virgillitos Gourmet, created her hot sauces and pepper jellies in her home kitchen both in Slocomb, Alabama and here in Long Beach, California. From selling to friends and neighbors to partnering with restaurants and food trucks, Virgillito has grown her food business from a hobby into her full-time profession.
Virgillito found her new passion while living in Alabama in 2008. While in her garden, she was shaken by a voice. “I heard a voice say in my ear, it was God speaking to me, and it said ‘make hot sauce,’” says Virgillito.
Since that first day, her business has expanded, but not without difficulties. Her community stepped up to help when she needed it, providing produce, jars, and networking opportunities. “The community rallied behind me,” says Virgillito. “I knew nothing about the industry, but God always brought the people to me.”
At the beginning of her business, she was cooking and operating from her home. Once she established relationships with some restaurants, owners allowed her to cook in their kitchens after hours. Virgillito recognizes that commercial kitchen space is not accessible to everyone but emphasizes how vital her home kitchen was in growing her business.
After moving back out West, Virgillito built new relationships in the Long Beach area, expanding her business and network while doing something she loved. Restaurants like Michael’s and Derrick’s on Atlantic regularly use her custom rubs and sauces in their dishes. She also brings flavor to the popular food truck, Savage Tacos, and sells sauces through Hops and Vines Market. Building a company has had its barriers, but she holds that her connection with God and her spirituality helped. “Whenever you are given a vision, you will make provision,” says Virgillito. She notes that for those with a vision, now is the time to pursue their passion of starting a food business. AB 626 provides the possibility of helping people get back on their feet and creating more food businesses in communities, explains Vrigillito.
“I think that we would see a surge of new businesses [if Long Beach implements AB 626]. Many people would be able to see their dreams come true,” says Virgllito. “There are a lot of people who can throw down in the kitchen and really cook.”
Many people and companies are advocating for the authorization in their county to promote food diversity, help with incomes, strengthen communities, and enable people to save up to establish their own brick and mortar. Home kitchens can empower residents and communities, says Laura Som, founder of the MAYE Center and Long Beach resident.
“Many immigrants who are my neighbors and members at the MAYE Center have language barriers or not enough money to open a store to contribute to our community economy,” says Som, an immigrant, and former refugee. “But with home kitchens, they can! Economic inclusiveness must put our barriers into consideration.”
Until more cities and counties authorize AB 626, there are other opportunities to help food businesses grow. Kiva, an international nonprofit, crowdfunds micro-loans and distributes capital to address inequitable access to finance. Long Beach is one of a limited list of American “Kiva cities,” and Long Beach Fresh sponsors food businesses across the city to receive zero interest loans from micro-lenders that range from $2,000-$10,000. The City’s Economic Development department hosts the initiative with support from LA LISC, both of which have a range of loan platforms to help micro-businesses expand.
When it comes to permitting, CFOs have enabled people to actualize their dreams of creating a food business, but AB 626 would help people do more. By allowing people to start food businesses from home, communities can become more resilient in the face of economic disasters and people can create companies they are passionate about.
“I will always be so thankful because there were times where I did not know what I was going to do [but the community would be there to support me],” says Virgillito.
Many companies and community members want to see AB 626 passed in their counties. Stay up to date with your county’s implementation of AB 626 with this chart, and check out this Facebook group for community support. Community members are invited to discuss Long Beach’s potential adoption of the permit system for home kitchens. The next scheduled meeting is March 1st, 2021 at 6pm (register here).
For a list of licensed micro-businesses, and artisans that started in small kitchens in Long Beach, check out our Small-Batch Food list.
If you have more questions about the MEHKA, permitting requirements, inspections, and preparation, please refer to this FAQs post by the Cook Alliance.