SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (AP) – When the COVID-19 shutdown hit in March 2020, Mike Winneker, a hotel executive’s sous-chef, was out of work for the first time in years. Between caring for a 6 year old son and waiting for unemployment benefits, the days now spent at home in Scottsdale have been stressful.
One night in June, 33-year-old Winneker was making tacos with beef feed and beef cheeks. When he saw how much he had, he hit upon the idea of selling tacos. His first test run was a post in the NextDoor app in which brisket barbacoa tacos were offered in his driveway. Winneker decided he would only do it if he had at least $ 300 advance booking.
He made $ 800 in a day.
“As of now, I have 300 people on an email list,” said Winneker, who has since been offering tacos twice a week via email and Instagram. “If I only get a small percentage of it, it will help pay my bills.”
Depressed by the pandemic, many laid-off or inactive restaurant workers have focused on handing out food with a touch of home. Some have found their entrepreneurial side and kicked culinary creations out of their own kitchens.
In many cases, this can mean that health regulations are violated or taken into account. These chefs and caterers say they need money and a purpose, and their plight has shed new light on an ongoing debate over regulations on the sale of homemade meals.
The rules for serving food for immediate consumption vary from state to state, creating a complex patchwork of requirements, said Martin Hahn, an attorney at Hogan Lovells who specializes in food industry law. States generally refer to federal guidelines, but counties and cities drive permit and license terms. While some states have home-cooked food laws that allow in-house preparation, these apply to “low-risk” products like jams and bread.
“The first place I would go is to call my local health department to find out if there are license requirements, permits, and restrictions on being able to do this type of business from home,” Hahn said.
Don Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University who has given food safety workshops, said homemade foods with items like raw meat are a gamble for consumers. Assume that proper storage, cross-contamination prevention, and other best practices have been followed.
“I totally understand why (the cooks) do it. Just from a food safety point of view, I can’t support that, ”he said.
Eight doors down from Winneker, Ruby Salgado, 26, and her husband Jose Hernandez spend their weekends making pizza in a garden oven they built. On some nights, up to 30 cakes are made with toppings such as fennel sausage, fresh mozzarella and carne asada.
Salgado works as a configuration analyst for pharmacy benefits. But Hernandez, a restaurant chef, cut his hours. Salgado’s 23-year-old brother, whose working hours as a restaurant waiter can vary, also lives with them.
When they moved in in September, Salgado noticed people leaving Winneker’s house with removable bins for inspiration. She and Hernandez planned on one day owning a food truck or trailer to sell pizzas. The slowdown in the pandemic seemed like a good time to test their concept and “earn extra income to help our family”.
For foods other than cottage foods, Arizona requires you to obtain a license from a county environmental health department to cook in a licensed commercial kitchen. It wouldn’t be worth renting one for Salgado unless it consistently sold 50 pizzas.
“I need to do my research and find kitchens near us that would be willing to rent us a kitchen in the morning to make the preparations,” she said.
Both Winneker and Salgado state that they have food manager / handler cards and pay attention to cleanliness. They have refrigerators for their grocery stores and wear masks and gloves.
Like Salgado’s family, Thao Nguyen sold pizzas from her backyard in California’s Yucca Valley after her homeware store closed. After three months, her small pizza business was shut down by San Bernardino County health officials last summer.
“You received a formal complaint from someone and came to visit. You were looking for evidence on social media to start a lawsuit against me,” said Nguyen, who has since been cooking in a local kitchen for Pop-ups at Community College .
It was frustrating, said Nguyen, because California’s 2018 law allows a “micro-business” to use household kitchens – that has a full-time employee and no more than $ 50,000 in gross annual revenue. But it is up to each county to implement this. While San Bernardino County isn’t on board, neighboring Riverside County is.
“I think this is a great thing to do to help people who can’t afford or don’t have the resources or the lifestyle to really get involved in a stationary restaurant,” said Nguyen.
Lee Thomas, a former San Leandro, California councilor who works for the Oakland Unified School District, had a side business called GrilleeQ that grilled food for events at people’s homes. Because of COVID-19, he now cooks in his backyard – against the rules of Alameda County. He’s worried about getting into trouble, but wants to draw attention to the problem.
“People will do that anyway,” said Thomas. “You might as well legalize people’s fear … but also create this ecosystem to make sure food is safe.”
According to the COOK Alliance, a home cook advocacy group, California, Wyoming, and North Dakota allow limited sales of higher risk foods like meat. Utah signed similar laws in March.
In New Mexico, the pandemic has sparked renewed interest in home-made canned food sales. In March, state lawmakers voted to ease restrictions on the sale of homemade foods that can be safely stored without refrigeration. Salespeople still have to complete a short training course, label products and keep the kitchen “free of pets or children” while food is being prepared.
“We’re working on other states,” said Peter Ruddock, director of policy and implementation for the COOK Alliance in California. “We take food safety very seriously. We just think there are many ways to do this, and an outright ban – which we basically have – is not the best way to go. “
Schaffner, the professor, pointed out that any legislation provides for regular health inspections and intensive training, just as restaurant chefs would. “Those two things would be a really good first step,” he said.
Winneker has no plans to do a sideline from home forever. He’s not ruling out getting back to his job, but he wants to get a salesman’s license and move into a commercial kitchen. In the meantime, he’s prepared to close the taco shop.
“(The pandemic) made me realize that when my back is against the wall, I’ll find out,” said Winneker. “In the worst case scenario, they’ll tell me to stop. If they tell me to stop, I’ll do it legitimately and start over. “