California home kitchens program an opportunity for some during pandemic

Back in March, as COVID-19 first swept California, Sergio Garcia started thinking about cheesecake — specifically his late father’s cheesecake recipe, fine-tuned when Garcia was a kid growing up in Mexico.

Garcia had been dreaming about starting a business selling coffee and pastries for years, and the engineering firm where he worked in Palm Springs was closing for several weeks because of the pandemic. The window of opportunity to open his own kitchen, Bocanegra Coffee Roasters, had suddenly appeared. It could serve as both a passion project and a coronavirus safeguard for him, his wife and three children.

“We thought, ‘We have to take this opportunity and not just be here at the house,’” he said. “It was a moment to start thinking about your own project because you are depending on a job, a (consistent) salary.” 

Garcia now sells healthier iterations of his family’s classic cheesecake, including gluten-free and keto-friendly options, from his home in Desert Hot Springs with the help of a Riverside County permit. He has plans to start roasting his own coffee beans soon. 

People in the Coachella Valley have been preparing food in their homes and selling it to their neighbors for generations. It’s a way for people to show off their cooking skills and supplement their families’ incomes. Elected officials, striving to support residents’ entrepreneurial spirit and ensure home kitchens meet health and safety regulations, have in recent years passed regulations intended to legitimize these operations.

The county Board of Supervisors last May approved an ordinance allowing people to operate so-called microenterprise home kitchens, like Garcia’s, selling up to 30 cooked meals per day or 60 per week. In approving the regulation, the county became the first in California to implement a 2018 state law that expanded the kinds of foods home-based businesses could sell, from certain baked goods to cooked food.

This year, as coronavirus decimated the region’s tourism and restaurant industries, leading to double-digit unemployment levels, many people have turned the act of preparing food from a side project or hobby into bonafide businesses. Some have applied for permits to operate home kitchens while others have operated without — at least until they are forced to come into compliance.

And while the home kitchens program is still in its infancy and hasn’t yet been widely adopted, it has proved to be a safety net — and, for some, a pathway to business ownership — during a year of economic instability. Some residents, though, say there are ways the program could be improved.

“We obviously didn’t envision a pandemic,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat who represents the eastern Coachella Valley and Imperial County and wrote the state’s 2018 home kitchen law. “But we did envision that person who was limited in options for employment, having the ability to become self-sufficient, and having the ability to become an entrepreneur through their cooking talent in the kitchen.”

Bringing people ‘out of the shadows’

Garcia’s AB 626, approved by the state legislature in 2018, built on California’s existing cottage food law. It was intended to bring more health and safety protocols to home kitchens, holding them to the same standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants.

It was also, Garcia said, “a great opportunity to really help people that are already doing something, enter into a space of legitimacy, out of the shadows and into the arena of becoming their own business entrepreneurs out of their homes.”

A city or county must authorize microenterprise home kitchen operations, before home cooks in that jurisdiction can obtain a permit to operate. Since the Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance allowing microenterprise home kitchens in May 2019, 90 businesses have received permits. That total number is a substantial increase from last year, when just 28 permits were approved from June to December.

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A California Department of Public Health spokesperson said it does not know how many other counties or cities have approved similar ordinances. Brent Casey, who oversees the home kitchen program for Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, knew of at least two that were interested: Solano and Santa Barbara counties. But Solano County delayed implementation due to the pandemic, and Santa Barbara directed its public health department to prepare an ordinance but hasn’t adopted one yet.

Self-taught baker Christina Canales launched her business, The Sunday Baker, from her home in Indio on Valentine’s Day 2019. She started with with a cottage food operation permit, which only allows home cooks to sell low-risk foods, like those without dairy, and eventually graduated to a home kitchen license for more flexibility.

A year into her business, coronavirus hit. In some ways, Canales said, she was better equipped because indoor dining in her home was never an option; it was just pick-up and delivery, and now only the latter. But sales have been relatively slow. The typical events that Canales would bake for pre-pandemic, like weddings and birthdays, have been scaled back or happen less frequently.

Christina Canales, runs The Sunday Baker out of her home in Indio, Calif., on November 6, 2020.
Taya Gray/The Desert Sun

“I had several weddings lined up and a big party we were gonna throw to celebrate the first year (of the business), and then everything kind of fell apart,” she said. 

Creativity is one factor that has kept the kitchen alive. 

Canales makes custom cakes, cupcakes and cookies. A by-product of getting “bored easily” means that her kitchen often fills with different menu items. Recent baking trials for the holidays have led to mini pecan pies, pumpkin-caramel tarts with candied walnuts, maple oak squares and dark chocolate vegan bundt cakes with chocolate ganache. A sweet potato pie with meringue topping was a unique twist on sweet potato casserole and marshmallows, a dish her grandmother would serve on Thanksgiving when Canales was young. 

“I just kind of try things and see if it works,” she said. “Because I think it’s fun and I like to have choices, I offer 33 flavors of cakes people can choose from.”

For Canales, the home kitchen permit has been a key stepping stone towards her ultimate goal: opening her own storefront.

“As challenging as it is to keep a small food business going during the pandemic, I do want to continue,” she said. “My business is a work of love and I never considered not doing it.”

Christina Canales, owner of The Sunday Baker, makes her Pumpkin Caramel Tart with Candied Walnuts⁠ out of her home in Indio, Calif., on November 6, 2020.

Christina Canales, owner of The Sunday Baker, makes her Pumpkin Caramel Tart with Candied Walnuts⁠ out of her home in Indio, Calif., on November 6, 2020.
Taya Gray/The Desert Sun

Some growing pains in the valley

As of Oct. 20, there were 14 permitted home kitchens in the Coachella Valley. Assemblymember Garcia said that number seemed “low.” 

“I would have expected that they would be higher,” he said. “But for some people, it may be easier to keep doing it the way they’ve been doing it, and not have to go through a process. But the minute, perhaps, they learn about the program and how much it cost, and then the minute they receive a warning and/or are enforced via a citation, then all of a sudden they may become more interested in the idea of doing it legitimately through a process.”

Local cooks have said the current program isn’t perfect.

Canales, the baker, said the steep home kitchen permit fee can be daunting, especially because she has yet to make a profit after almost two years.

The microenterprise home kitchen permit has a price tag of $651. To start a business, applicants must also submit their menu and standard operating procedures, get a food safety manager certification and schedule an inspection of their kitchen.

“I believe the county should do everything they can to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic,” Canales said. “The county may want to reconsider the cost of the permit fee in that light.”

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Some residents have opted to not apply for a permit because the process seemed complicated, and the amount of paperwork involved was intimidating. Others raise concerns about the county’s limit of 30 plates a day or 60 per week, which, they say, doesn’t fit their business model. The limit aims to maintain food safety protocols, by ensuring home cooks don’t produce more food than their refrigerators or dish washers can handle.

Future of home kitchens in the valley

City of Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez is trying to help home cooks get permitted. He offered to assist the small businesses in a September Facebook post.

“We are here to help and know that many folks that start their home kitchen are doing so to help their (families,)” he wrote.

Helping the small businesses become legitimate and safe, Hernandez said, also supports and celebrates the development of Coachella’s food scene.

Jesus Ruiz Navarro started preparing seafood for some friends in his backyard in Indio last September. His friends invited their friends, so he added tables and canopies to the yard. The business grew so popular that even the Indio Police Department showed up.

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Mariscos del Valle owner Jesus “Chuy” Ruiz is in the process of obtaining the microenterprise permit from Riverside County.

Taya Gray, Palm Springs Desert Sun

“They told me there were a lot of complaints,” he said. The police threatened to fine him for operating a home-based kitchen without a permit, he said.

Ruiz Navarro, who is known as Chuy, has since closed his backyard business. Hernandez connected him with the property owner of a ranch on a frontage road, and he’s now renting that property. He’s in the process of applying for the microenterprise home kitchen permit.

In the meantime, he’s continuing to cook ribeye steaks and whole fish over a custom-made grill, and serving it to people who sit at outdoor picnic tables on a patio, below a string of lights.

Johana Paredes, 29, of Indio, visited Ruiz Navarro’s new location on a recent evening. She praised his seafood and his outdoor seating, which makes her feel safer as the coronavirus surges in the eastern Coachella Valley. She added: “It does get full because the food is so good.”

Amanda Ulrich and Rebecca Plevin are reporters for The Desert Sun. Reach Ulrich at [email protected] and Plevin at [email protected]

Mariscos del Valle owner Jesus "Chuy" Ruiz Navarro sells grilled octopus from his home business in Coachella, Calif., on Friday, November 13, 2020.

Mariscos del Valle owner Jesus “Chuy” Ruiz Navarro sells grilled octopus from his home business in Coachella, Calif., on Friday, November 13, 2020.
Taya Gray/The Desert Sun

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