Solano County legalized home food popups. But 6 months later, chefs still can’t sell

When Solano County approved a new California law that would legalize home-based kitchen operations in April, it seemed like Cheska Kistner’s plans to open a restaurant in her Benicia home would finally come to fruition. The measure, California’s AB 626, allows for what are known as microenterprise food businesses, which Alameda County also made inroads toward legalizing yesterday. But no Bay Area county has yet fully implemented the 2018 law, leaving entrepreneurs like Kistner in limbo.

Under AB 626, cooks can legally sell up to 30 meals a day or 60 per week from their homes when their counties opt in and they have received a permit; their annual gross sales are capped at $50,000. The law has only been implemented in one county so far, Riverside. In Alameda County, many home kitchen operations have proliferated during the pandemic without the option to get proper permitting, leading to the health department cracking down on some.

Solano County is one of the furthest along in the Bay Area, even though the coronavirus pandemic caused officials to delay in-home inspections and permitting until shelter-at-home orders are lifted. What many people thought would be a short delay has lasted six months – and counting.

For Kistner, a personal chef and caterer on and off for nearly 30 years, that means waiting to expand her business beyond the current small number of carry-out orders she makes for family, friends and clients. She would like to recreate the model of her Philippines restaurant, Bale Ku Café, which means “my house” in her local dialect and is operated out of a home. Her Asian fusion dishes — including japchae, with sweet potato noodles and ribeye steak, and ningnang manuk, a grilled chicken and rice dish — generally cost $25 and feed two to three people.

With so many suffering financially during the pandemic, proponents say there couldn’t be a better time to launch the program.

“There are people who need to work, who want to work,” says Matthew Butler, a Vallejo cook who wants to start a home restaurant business. “This would definitely be a viable option for a lot of people.”

Home kitchen entrepreneur Cheska Kistner makes food at her home in Benicia, Calif., on Monday, October 12, 2020. Kistner is among an estimated 100 entrepreneurs waiting for Solano County to finish implementing a law that would allow them to establish legal home kitchen businesses.

Butler has spent the last 10 or so years catering parties and corporate events after working at restaurants throughout Solano and Contra Costa counties. That all came to a halt once the pandemic hit. While he has found catering work with a chef friend still servicing clients, he envisions creating his own home-based restaurant called Vondi’s, in honor of his late mother, where he would sell his Mediterranean braised beef with garlic mashed potatoes and Korean-style pork chops with bok choy. The only other food options in his neighborhood are fast food and burrito trucks, and he thinks it could represent a new revenue stream, especially with his kids at home distance learning.

To Supervisor Monica Brown, it is this type of caregiver scenario that initially seemed like a perfect fit for AB 626.

“When a constituent came and brought this forward, my first

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