The colorful plates at Lucy Silva’s Corona, California, restaurant Barra de Pan won’t stop coming. They are a force unto themselves, arriving in quick succession until they threaten to overtake the outdoor table. There’s a steaming plate of birria tacos, their tortillas red and softened from a dip in the cooking consomme, plus tacos al vapor, enchiladas, and cafe de olla. Silva, her kind eyes smiling from behind a mask, never slows down.
Like every restaurant in California at the moment, Barra de Pan’s dining is limited to a single large patio area. The kitchen is out in the open air too, a mishmash that includes a retro suburban four-burner stove, a discada for tacos, a fridge, and a homemade pizza oven. She and her daughters cook, run orders, talk with customers at socially distanced tables, and occasionally duck inside to stack dirty dishes for the late evening clean-up. Working at Barra de Pan takes its toll, but for the Silva family, going to bed at the end of a long shift means simply walking upstairs to their bedrooms.
Barra de Pan is a home restaurant in the vast Inland Empire, and it has been given full approval to operate thanks to California Retail Food Code AB-626, which legalizes “microenterprise home kitchen operations.” The newly implemented regulation allows anyone to run a licensed restaurant out of their home kitchen and dining room. No commercial space, no food truck, no ghost kitchen, and no staff is needed — just pull some local permits to get certified by the Riverside County public health office.
AB-626 may seem like a small adjustment to the state’s vast body of food regulations, but in reality it’s something much more: The new law could unleash a dining revolution in California, precisely when it’s needed most. Between work from home mandates, high unemployment, and the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, the entrepreneurial opportunities presented by AB-626 could mean tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of local chefs who feed their communities the food they most want to eat. And while Riverside is the state’s only county to fully implement AB-626, the dozens of restaurants that have come online since January 2020 are proving that a path forward for legal home cooking is not only possible, it’s needed.
In late 2008, Los Angeles, like the rest of America, was hit hard by the Great Recession. Restaurants closed, jobs disappeared, and people who had spent a lifetime walking the financial tightrope that is the hospitality industry suddenly found themselves dangling into space. And yet, just one year later, LA gave rise to the modern food truck movement as small bands of chefs, cooks, and newly minted owners decided collectively to forego big financing and brick-and-mortar locations altogether. The food truck revolution changed America, ushering in a new era of low-cost entry and big culinary ideas. It not only democratized the process of running a restaurant, it literally took the show on the road. From food truck reality shows to movies like Chef, food trucks were seen across the country as a way in.
Now LA is once again in the grip of mass layoffs, rolling restaurant closures, and the kinds of real estate woes that mirror 2008, if not worse, and all because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With a little luck and some political will, AB-626 could turn home kitchens into the food movement of 2020 and 2021.
Akshay Prabhu spent years trying to legalize at-home restaurants in California. While a neuroscience student at UC Davis, he ran his own underground restaurant and fantasized about building a mobile hot dog cart before running into various legal hurdles. Without an existing legal framework in place, Prabhu decided to begin lobbying Sacramento politicians directly. His ask was simple: What would it take to rethink the word “restaurant” and legalize micro-entrepreneurs that cook out of their homes?
Just like that, the AB-626 movement was born, and along with it Prabhu’s platform Foodnome, a website and app that helps home cooks through the permitting process and features their restaurants all in one place. Prabhu wasn’t alone in his efforts; state assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, whose district covers large swaths of Riverside and Imperial counties, shepherded the bill all the way to the governor’s desk, as did Cook Alliance, a non-profit partner also working to bring home restaurants to life.
Prabhu’s company helps simplify the process for aspiring home restaurateurs, who have been mostly women of color and immigrants so far. Staffers help home chefs walk through the cumbersome permitting process. The initial costs of just over $1000 covers the $651 paperwork, liability insurance, and startup toolkit. Chefs must also pass a week-long food management certification course and undergo home kitchen inspections by public health officers. Once approved, they’re free to sell food from their home. And while these entrepreneurs don’t need to use Foodnome as a listing directory for their business (they can market themselves on Instagram or other social media platforms), there’s strength in being listed alongside almost every other approved home business under AB-626 — about a few dozen spread mostly around Riverside, Corona, and the Moreno Valley.
It is Prabhu’s belief (both before the pandemic and moreso now) that at-home restaurants can serve as a path forward for eager self-starters, who could then go on to open a retail space and hire more people, while serving the food that the community likely wants to eat. “Our home restaurants are representative of the diversity of the community,” Prabhu says. “They address a lot of food desert issues.”
“There are so many people within these communities that could serve food,” Prabhu says, “We need to reduce the distance that food travels and increase availability of food in key neighborhoods.”
Right now, Prabhu, says “there are too many barriers.” The language of AB-626 gives “full discretion” to public health departments and regional governing bodies (be they city or county) to actually create the framework for approving at-home restaurants, meaning there’s no formal statewide body overseeing all the permitting. Licenses and health departments in one county don’t need to follow the same approval process as the next county over; in fact, they don’t have to actually permit AB-626 at all.
As it now stands, the only county in California with AB-626 up and running is Riverside, though Prabhu says that others are considering the measure. San Bernardino is looking at neighboring Riverside as a test case before it decides on its own approach, and Alameda County — home to large cities like Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont, and Hayward — is said to be considering it as well, with first approvals to hopefully come before the end of 2020.
LA County advocates have been calling on county supervisors to take up AB-626 for more than a year, which could help bring in needed revenue through the permitting, approval, and taxation process. After all, underground at-home restaurants like Carnitas El Momo and the original Starry Kitchen have been proliferating in neighborhoods for years to much public acclaim, though always under the threat of being shut down for operating illegally. But with stricter regulatory enforcement, a stronger brick-and-mortar restaurant lobby, a much larger population, and overlapping jurisdictions (Pasadena and Long Beach each have their own public health departments, for example), immediate movement seems unlikely — especially when LA County public officials already can’t find a way to streamline a path forward for longstanding local street food vendors.
Silva didn’t decide to open her own home restaurant under AB-626 because she wanted to change the entire business model. The single mother of three spent decades cooking food for others, mostly through local initiatives like the Corona Child Nutrition Services and her own non-profit Food Runners, which offers low-cost catering for other non-profits in the Inland Empire using trained student volunteers and donations.
For years, Silva’s food was made off-site in an unlicensed kitchen, before an anonymous tip led to a crackdown by the local health department. Silva says she was fortunate to have a sympathetic ear with local political officials (and the help of a $1,000 grant from the United Way) to bring her into compliance at a commissary kitchen, but the idea that she couldn’t legally offer food to those in need simply because it was cooked in her house always seemed foolish. The arrival of Foodnome and AB-626 came at the right time, and offered a legal pathway to keep going. “I thought, I’m already doing this,” says Silva from her backyard restaurant in Corona, “so why not make it official?”
Her permit process with Riverside County took several months, beginning in October 2019 and ending with a fully licensed at-home restaurant in January 2020, the first month they were formally allowed. While waiting, Silva and her daughters spent their time tweaking their corner lot, which already included a thriving front yard garden and flagstone patio.
“When I got divorced, I told my husband all I wanted was the house and the kids,” the Tijuana-born Silva says. She got both. By the time final approval was given by Riverside County, Silva’s outdoor setup had grown to include half a dozen dining tables, string lights, multiple working sinks, and all that outdoor cooking equipment. The restaurant was an easy hit, thanks to its colorful ambiance and inviting, familiar Mexican comfort food. Customers would start a night under the stars with tacos, and end with cafe de olla and buñuelos, at least until the coronavirus pandemic struck.
For Evon McMurray in Eastvale, a rolling suburb just southwest of the city of Riverside, AB-626 was nothing more than the chance to continue doing what she loves, even into retirement.
“I’ve always had a restaurant of some kind,” says McMurray from the front door of her tract home. As a teenager growing up in Louisiana, she watched her father bounce between various jobs, including as a short-order cook, and spent time herself working for her aunt at a diner in Grambling, Louisiana before moving out west. At 18, she went into business with her in-laws on a South LA restaurant off Vermont called A Family Affair — a fitting name for McMurray’s journey.
“My home has always been the gathering place for family,” says McMurray, who was raised alongside nine siblings by her single father. Today she counts five children of her own, 16 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. When her sister passed away, McMurray says she “inherited” her now-76-year-old deaf and blind brother-in-law, and his 33-year-old son, who has Down Syndrome. Much like her first Southern California business venture, McMurray’s home in Eastvale is now both a restaurant and a true family affair.
Much like her busy two-story home, McMurray’s menu at her Foodnome restaurant Jerky Jerk is an eclectic collection of personal things. “I’m between two worlds: southern Louisiana and northern Louisiana,” she says of her culinary inspiration, “and everybody thinks the cuisine is the same. It’s not. If you go to New Orleans you’re going to get gumbo, you’re going to get jambalaya. You come to northern Louisiana, you’re going to get red beans and rice, fried chicken, smothered potatoes, and smothered pork chops. I mix the two because we have that Cajun-Caribbean-African influence. It’s how we grew up.”
Much like the growing Southern-influenced soul food movement happening in the LA County suburb of Antelope Valley, the food at Jerky Jerk weaves between classics like pineapple upside down cake and baked mac and cheese to oxtails, jerk chicken, fried plantains, and red beans and rice.
Despite a written proposal for a possible future restaurant (lovingly called the Bean Pot) McMurray says that the timing isn’t right. And anyways, the money just isn’t there. “Financially, I can’t do it.” Besides, right now her work is needed at home, not out in the world, and that has made AB-626 a perfect middle ground for this uncertain moment.
Chef My Nhan Tran uses her menu at My Fair Kitchen as a way to reach her community locally and culturally, and to draw from her deep connections to the heartfelt foods of her past. A Vietnamese immigrant born in Soc Trang province south of Ho Chi Minh City, Tran says that cooking more expressive versions of familiar dishes has allowed her to engage with her Eastvale neighbors. “I just started to discover my passion,” says Tran. “I [would] go home and try to cook whatever I ate, and just try to remember the taste. I might go check YouTube, but I always know what I want it to look like.”
Tran’s aesthetic can best be described as The Most Beautiful Vietnamese Food You Have Ever Seen. There’s a casual meticulousness to her setup, tucked inside a stucco corner house. A full butter poached lobster tail over garlic noodles might appear from the built-in oven of her slate-toned suburban kitchen, a rich complement to the herbaceous pho (with handmade meatballs, naturally) that arrives next.
Initially, Tran would draw customers (mostly friends and neighbors) by offering her food for free, partly to test new recipes and partly for the crowd it drew. Hers is one of the newer restaurants on Foodnome, relatively speaking, having only been permitted this summer. The lack of legal documentation before AB-626 left her in legally murky waters, and Tran — a former software engineer and now stay-at-home mother of four — never wanted to risk her future opportunities by taking money up front.
“I don’t want to do anything illegal,” says Tran of her time cooking in the vast underground of unlicensed restaurants in Southern California. “I want this to be a real career. I don’t want people to think I’m just doing this for the quick cash. I don’t like for them to think that way.”
Tran says she has a plan to draw a crowd even as the COVID-19 pandemic hangs in the air, and as more people join the home kitchen movement. “I will do Vietnamese that no one is selling,” she says. “I want to be different. If I cook my pho, it needs to be different than the restaurants around here.” Down the line, Tran is already planning to debut a Soc Trang speciality: fermented fish noodle soup (bun nuoc leo), a pork and crab vermicelli soup (bun rieu cua), and a variety of shareable grilled fish and meat dishes. It’s not the sort of thing found in most Vietnamese restaurants in Southern California, and for her, that’s precisely the point.
Even with so many talented cooks on his side, Prabhu knows that Foodnome faces an uphill battle in continuing to fight for AB-626. The pandemic has encased the state’s already-slow centers of bureaucracy in molasses, and existing restaurants are fighting an increasingly public battle just to keep their doors open one more day. But that’s no reason to hide from the fight for increased access and low-cost entry into the restaurant world for so many eager entrepreneurs. If AB-626 is able to expand into Alameda County, San Bernardino County, and beyond, the results could be massively beneficial not only for Foodnome, but also for diners, cooks, cities, counties, and communities at large. It could even lead to a new golden age of American dining, one not centered in large urban areas or around deep-pocketed investors.
There’s existing competition out there already, including the Glendale-based DishDivvy, which has been tinkering with a similar model since 2017. It’s also a touchy time to confront the restaurant industry with a new ownership model, when existing brick-and-mortar owners and lobby groups are fighting a public battle with government representatives just to stay alive as COVID-19 rages across the state. “The restaurant lobby is pretty strong at the county level,” Prabhu says, in part because “the cities make a lot of money from restaurants” and the revenue they generate. California restaurants accounted for nearly $100 billion in sales in 2018.
But for many, these home kitchens won’t generate enough sales to directly compete with existing commercial restaurants. “People have been really welcoming to what I’m doing,” Silva says, but for now that isn’t going to translate into a full-fledged restaurant. The moment is too volatile, and AB-626 has allowed her to make enough money to be sustainable from home. While the law specifically calls for “no more than one full-time equivalent food employee” per permit, she runs the restaurant with her daughters, who have their own jobs, helping out when they can.
Much like cottage industry wholesale production laws, AB-626 also caps the money made at “no more than $50,000 in verifiable gross annual sales,” but with everything else she’s doing at the moment, that number sounds like enough to Silva. “I always wanted to open a restaurant and have my own business, so this is just like a perfect thing.”
Jerky Jerk’s McMurray agrees. It’s hard to think of a better time than now to continue her passion for cooking while bringing in some needed extra income, she says, and it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it than right in her own kitchen.
“Sitting at the table, you get more information over a meal than you do sitting in on any question and answer session,” says McMurray. “It’s the way to bring love home.”