One year after moving to Riverside County, California, Chona Mejia was hunting for a new occupation. She had just returned to the U.S. from a four-year sojourn in her native Philippines. Her three kids had left home. Her husband had retired from the U.S. Navy. Then she saw a news story about AB 626, a new law that would let her cook food in her own kitchen to sell it to strangers. “I immediately went to Riverside County and inquired about how this thing was going to happen,” she said. “I was ready to go!”
She was lucky: Even though AB 626 took effect in January 2019, Riverside County is the first and only county in California to issue licenses for “microenterprise home kitchen operations.” Supporters of the bill have made the case that AB 626 will legitimize the cooks who have long supplied immigrant communities with dumplings, lumpia, and tamales, sometimes called the “informal economy.” Critics, meanwhile, argued that tech companies would co-opt AB 626 to profit off these hard-working cooks.
As other California counties decide whether to follow Riverside County’s example, Mejia’s home restaurant, The Golden Spoon, and her 26 fellow licensees prove both the law’s supporters and critics right. Mejia’s business is booming, thanks to a startup that doesn’t charge her or her customers to conduct sales. For now.
Since 2012, California, like many other states, has enacted “cottage food laws” that allow home cooks to sell cookies, jams, and other low-risk foods to the public. Under the initial laws, meat was considered too dangerous. Same with dairy or egg.
In 2016, the COOK Alliance started lobbying to expand the scope of the laws. The alliance’s head, Matt Jorgensen, co-founded a sharing-economy startup called Josephine in 2015 that brokered home-cooked meals online. While showcasing idealism about building community, the company also embodied Uber and Airbnb’s break-the-law-and-the-law-will-change approach. The local health department clapped back, sending cease-and-desist letters to participating cooks, and Josephine was forced to shut down. Jorgensen, who believed in…