Santa Clara County residents running food businesses out of their kitchens will be able to come out of the shadows, following a Tuesday Board of Supervisors vote.
The board authorized a three-year pilot program for microenterprise home kitchen operations that will apply to all 15 cities and unincorporated areas within the county.
California established a legal framework for this type of business in 2019, allowing home cooks to prep and sell food, including meat and fish. The typical proprietor is a homeowner or renter who makes and sells products on their own. Small home kitchen businesses already operate in Santa Clara County, but the law heavily restricts what ingredients can be used.
According to officials, implementing the program will likely require community education and feedback—a process that could take roughly a year. Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who introduced the referral, asked county employees to report back in several months about the status of the community outreach, noting many businesses have been waiting for this program.
“It would be great if we could move on this within the year,” Chavez said.
People who already run small home kitchen operations say this will be a significant game changer for workers in the local food industry, especially those feeling the economic pinch of the pandemic and the increasing cost of living in Silicon Valley.
“I think it would be amazing,” Phuong Quach Fung, who runs a bakery in her San Jose home, told San José Spotlight. She noted San Diego authorized home kitchens in January. “It’s helping a lot of people working blue collar jobs because they’re able to make extra money on the weekends… and it’s teaching the community how to properly serve, store and cook food.”
Residents spoke in favor of legalizing home kitchens during the board meeting, including several people who have become food entrepreneurs through a program run by the nonprofit Veggielution. Mimi Hernandez, executive director of Prosperity Lab, said this action will give families dignity and self-sufficiency.
“A lot of food vendors that would benefit are displaced workers, single parents, immigrants, and many families in our community who have suffered the effects of COVID,” Hernandez said.
A growing movement
According to a county report, nine counties and one city—Berkeley—have authorized permanent or temporary home kitchen programs. Roya Bagheri, executive director of Cook Alliance, a nonprofit that supports these home kitchen programs, said San Benito County is considering authorizing a program, and advocates are pushing for them in Santa Cruz County and elsewhere.
“The movement is definitely growing, which is really exciting,” Bagheri told San José Spotlight.
Santa Clara County currently allows “cottage food operations,” which permit home cooks to sell mostly non-perishable or low-risk foods such as baked goods, fruit jams and candy. This differs from microenterprise kitchens, which can use fresh meat, seafood and vegetables. There are 204 permitted cottage food operations in Santa Clara County.
Microenterprise kitchens are only allowed to make $50,000 in gross annual sales, whereas cottage food operators can make up to $75,000 or $150,000, depending on the type of permit they get from the county. But the former has a greater range of foods available to cook with—something cottage food operators say is appealing.
“For my business, for example, I’m not allowed to use cream cheese in my butter cream,” Noelle Boesenberg, owner of San Jose-based TherapyBaking, told San José Spotlight. “You can’t have any fresh fruit in there, you can’t have cream or anything that would require refrigeration—that’s another reason why I started doing vegan stuff.”
Food safety is a concern for the pilot program. According to county officials, the California Department of Environmental Health received roughly 164 foodborne illness complaints in 2020, and 233 last year, in Santa Clara County. The county has almost 10,000 permitted food facilities and nearly 2 million residents, so this has not been a prevalent problem in recent years, officials noted.
There is some state data suggesting microenterprise kitchens create economic opportunities for people from disadvantaged communities. According to the county report, 50% of microenterprise kitchen operators in Alameda County are based in neighborhoods that qualify for CalFresh Healthy Living, a benefit available to areas where at least one racial group is at 185% the federal poverty level. Data from Riverside County indicates 85% of microenterprise kitchen operators are people of color and 60% are women.
Dennis King, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight it’s appropriate to set up these kitchens in Santa Clara County. King, who is currently helping the county distribute small COVID-19 relief grants to microbusinesses, said many of these businesses are already operating around the county, but they’re doing so under the radar without regulation or guidance.
“By bringing it out in the open, there’s a much higher probability of security, certainly in terms of food safety, so that would be a lot healthier for the customers as well as the entrepreneurs,” King said.