PHOTOGRAPHY BY COLINE LECONTE AND MARGAUX GIBBONS
ILLUSTRATION BY JASMINE SENAVERATNA
While the pandemic keeps us physically distant, a boom of cottage bakeries and residential restaurants brings new faces and new cuisines into the local food community
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, Michelle Lee found herself working from home—but her setup looked considerably different than the typical telecommuter’s.
Lee doesn’t spend her workday plopped in front of Zoom, troubleshooting glitchy Wi-Fi. Instead, she labors over a mixer and worries about the precision of her oven temperature. She’s one of many homebased chefs here in the Monterey Bay area selling food directly from their kitchens to customers.
She started cooking from her home out of necessity. For the past five years, she worked as sous chef and pastry chef at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey hotel on Cannery Row until, like many restaurant workers, she lost her job during the pandemic.
“After I was furloughed back in April, the first thing I felt like doing was making a pie,” Lee recalls. She resolved to be as productive as possible while out of work and had fun geeking out on making the perfect pie and the consummate croissant—but then her furlough became permanent. “I decided I was baking so much at home, I’d try to make money from it.” She launched Michelle Kneads Dough, which offers flash sales for baked “QuaranTreats” like caramel pumpkin pie, Cheez-It toffee and sweet Mexican conchas.
Lee isn’t alone. The pandemic has seen a boom of pop-up businesses offering foods cooked in home kitchens.
A scroll through Instagram reveals an astonishing array: vibrant quesabirria tacos with crimson consomé for dipping, artfully executed mochi doughnuts, towering sandwiches of crisp Nashville hot chicken, bite-sized Vietnamese shrimp pancakes—the list goes on and on.
The chefs and bakers behind these foods come from varied backgrounds. Some are steeped in the hospitality industry—out-of-work chefs and servers looking to compensate for lost income, retired hospitality veterans getting back into the business, ambitious cooks selling from home as market research for new concepts—but many are simply amateur home cooks with a passion for food and service.
A mom selling doughnuts to jumpstart college savings for her young kids, a Latinx couple sharing their passion for vegan Mexican cuisine, a high school student keeping busy over her summer vacation with weekend meal deliveries—these home operations have brought greater equity to food service, making an industry notoriously centered on white men more inclusive for women, people of color and young people.
Eager entrepreneurs face fewer barriers operating out of their homes—most notably skipping the expensive investment in buying or renting commercial property. And the commute is appealing.
After the birth of their fourth daughter in 2018, Isaiah and Jacquelyn Nickerson naturally wanted to maximize baby bonding time. “We were looking for a way to make the income I’d lose being home [on maternity leave] six to eight weeks or longer,” recalls Jacquelyn. She turned to baking, perfecting her recipe for French macarons and soon Mac City Macarons was born.
Like many cottage food operators, Jacquelyn appreciates the flexibility of baking from home. “I like being able to work directly from home while still being around my family.”
This year, she and Isaiah formally secured a cottage food license to sell their colorful and creative cookie combinations for pickup, pop-ups and at local farmers’ markets, finding a fervent following Isaiah calls their “Mac Family.”
Home-based food businesses have emerged as hubs of community and connection in a time when we’re starved for contact and company.
“Customers appreciate knowing they’re supporting family businesses. The community is right there with you helping you succeed,” says Sandra Ortega, who owns Azúcar Con T with her sister Celeste. The sisters sell homemade, vegan conchitas (mini Mexican sweet breads) frozen to bake in your own oven. “Now more than ever, people are trying to keep their money within the community.”
Otto Kramm, founder of Otto’s Bread Co. in San Benancio, agrees. “The pandemic is a tragedy, absolutely, but it’s brought about a sense of appreciation for everything local. Because of shelter-in-place orders, because of isolation, it’s brought a longing for a sense of community.”
Five years ago, he took up baking as a weekend hobby, supplying friends and coworkers with loaves of sourdough. While working from home during the pandemic in his job in banking, Kramm realized finance didn’t suit him. This January, he took a leap of faith to become a full-time home baker. “It’s inspiring to see others like myself pursue their dreams, especially when those dreams help bring people together.”
While the pandemic has elevated the prominence of home-based food operations, these businesses aren’t entirely new. Since 2012, cooks and bakers have leveraged California’s cottage food law to sell shelf-stable baked goods, jams and such that they make at home. But perishable foods—namely hot meals like you’d enjoy in a restaurant—were excluded until AB626 was signed into law in 2018.
Also known as the Homemade Food Act, this legislation allows for sales of a wider menu of foods by establishing microenterprise home kitchen operations (MEHKOs), essentially residential restaurants. The legislation was intended to democratize food service, which has a notoriously high barrier to entry, while creating a system for inspections and permits—similar to those for cottage food operations—to allay consumers’ concerns about health and safety.
Critically, however, these home-based restaurants are only allowed if approved by the county. To date, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties have not passed ordinances to begin permitting microenterprise home kitchen operations.
Here on the Central Coast, sales of perishable foods require the use of a commercial kitchen. In truth, many of those tantalizing tastes teased all over Instagram aren’t exactly legal—but that hasn’t seemed to slow diners’ appetites. All rack up like after like from followers who wait in eager anticipation of pop-up sales that often sell out in a snap. Locals love the feel-good notion of supporting their neighbors, especially when it means enjoying fresh foods and flavors that aren’t common in local restaurants.
Home pop-ups foster not only a greater diversity of purveyors, but product too. Some showcase dishes that aren’t in demand enough to justify a dedicated brick-and-mortar establishment, some cater to niche diets with vegan, gluten-free and keto selections, others ride on trending tastes with unproven market potential.
The signature rabokki from Rabokki Wednesdays combines ramen noodles and tteokbokki rice cakes in sweetened, umami-rich gochujang sauce. The dish is popular in Korea’s street food stalls, but largely absent from menus at local Korean restaurants. “Eighty percent of our customers have never tried it before, but then they turn into repeat customers,” explains one of Rabokki Wednesdays’ owners, who requested to remain anonymous since her home kitchen business is unlicensed.
After losing her weekend job due to the pandemic, the stay-at-home mother of a special needs child enlisted her own mother—a retired restaurateur— to help cook and sell hearty Korean street food to earn extra income. But the duo found richer rewards in showcasing their Korean heritage. “I’m excited sharing my mom’s food, and it’s such a great thing seeing her light up at customers’ compliments.”
The murky mess of regulations has created an underground market for homemade foods that’s left operators wary of inviting attention. There are now dozens of MEHKOs in business throughout the Monterey Bay area, but few would go on record to share their experience for fear of attracting scrutiny.
And they’re right to worry.
Media coverage and nosy neighbors put home pop-ups at risk of being outed to local health departments and shut down for operating without proper permitting. In the San Francisco Bay Area, authorities have ordered several viral home pop-ups to close. That’s an experience the Sani family is painfully familiar with.
Tuty and Alfian Sani launched Tante Tuty’s Kitchen in September. Tuty ran a homebased daycare, which remains shuttered indefinitely to protect a vulnerable family member in the multi-generational Marina home. Looking to recoup lost income, she and her husband leveraged her passion for food and his experience cooking in restaurants to offer locals a taste of traditional Indonesian cuisine.
“I’ve loved to cook since I was little. My happy time is in the kitchen,” Tuty says. The couple’s daughter Ariyanti helped with operations and the family found growing demand for a cuisine absent from Monterey County’s restaurant scene. “For a lot of people, it was their first exposure to Indonesian cuisine,” explains Ariyanti. “Access to a different cuisine was exciting for our customers.”
Customers’ rave reviews earned Tante Tuty’s Kitchen a feature in a local newspaper last October. But a week after a story celebrating their success as a pandemic pivot, the Monterey County Health Department ordered them to move to a commercial kitchen or shut down operations. “I didn’t know the Monterey County Health Department frequented Instagram, but I guess they do?” quips Ariyanti.
“We were shocked, but not really shocked,” she recalls, alluding to the gray area microenterprise home kitchen operations occupy. She and her parents were disappointed, but motivated to lobby county supervisors to recognize MEHKOs with the goal of fostering greater equity and inclusion in the local food industry.
“It would open doors for a lot of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] folks who want to share their food, who want to cook and who want to help keep their families afloat,” says Ariyanti. “People who are a little less affluent, like people of color who don’t have the generational wealth, they have to start somewhere. They have the passion to create a business, but face a lot of roadblocks.”
THE HOMEMADE FOOD ACT
Signed in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown, the Homemade Food Act (AB626) is the first law in the nation that sets out a process to permit the sale of fresh home-cooked dishes to the public.
It paves the way for people to start their own microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO), but implementation is required on a county-by-county basis and so far just three counties have started issuing permits: Riverside, Imperial and Lake. Santa Barbara County is looking at starting this spring.
“My big focus is on the local food economy,” says Peter Ruddock, who is spearheading the implementation effort through the Oakland-based nonprofit COOK Alliance. “I support cooks, farmers, CSAs and farmers’ markets. I want us all to get so much more of our food from our neighbors. It is more socially, economically and environmentally responsible.” Ruddock says there are basically two types of cooks who have signed up to start MEHKOs in the places where it is already allowed. Many are professional chefs interested in starting their own restaurants, who use it as a legal incubator to test their concept. Others are people who need the flexibility offered by MEHKOs, perhaps because they have children or an elderly relative they care for at home.
To get a county permit, it costs on average $1,000 for a health inspection and for certification as a food safety manager. All food must be prepared the same day it is sold and there is an annual cap of $50,000 in sales, although efforts are underway to raise that.
In our area, Penny Ellis—cofounder of the Corralitos Open Farm Tours—is the point person for implementation in Santa Cruz County. Monterey and San Benito counties are not as far along.
“I see this as a catalyst for job creation and creating a sustainable local food system starting from the grassroots level,” says Ellis.
Chef Linda Braz, a resident of Aptos, is looking forward to the day she can prepare and sell meals out of her home kitchen. She used to be co-owner of Encuentro Café & Wine Bar, a vegetarian restaurant in Oakland, and still remembers a write-up by the former San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic. “The most memorable part of the review for me was having Michael Bauer say that my marinara sauce tasted as though it came directly from a kitchen in Italy,” she recalls.
Once AB626 is implemented locally, we may have a chance to try that marinara and Braz says, Why not? “There’s no reason home cooks shouldn’t be able to sell food, if they have the proper guidance and follow all sanitary procedures. I often feel they do a better job than some restaurants. It’s not about being fancy, it’s about feeding people and showing love.”