Barbecue pork liempo, chicken inasal and a fiesta salad with mango calamansi vinaigrette are some of the customer favorites on Crystle Gonzales’ Shef profile, the online platform where she sells home-cooked food to help support her family.

Crystle Gonzales, a resident of Daly City, Calif., sells Filipino, Guamanian and Southeast Asian dishes from the Shef online platform to help support her family. Pictured is her HELLAXBOMB Combo Rice Plate. (Photo courtesy of Crystle Gonzales)

Gonzales started with Shef just last month, making a range of Filipino, Guamanian and Southeast Asian dishes.

“Living in California, especially the Bay Area, is extremely expensive,” said Gonzales, who left her job in 2018 to take care of her daughter while her husband works full-time.

“We knew that one income wouldn’t be enough to sustain our family,” she added.

The extra income from selling food helps Gonzales and her husband save up for expenses like buying a house or their daughter’s education.

Joining a growing trend

This month, San Mateo County passed a new law that would allow chefs like Gonzales to receive permits from the county to sell food from home.

California’s “Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations” or MEHKO law was first established in 2018 by Assembly Bill 626 and amended by Assembly Bill 377 in 2019. San Mateo County joins other counties — like Alameda, Solano and Riverside — that have opted in to the state law by approving their own ordinances.

The new law would allow people to make and sell up to 30 meals a day or 60 meals a week from their homes, with food being prepared and delivered on the same day.

“It’s a great opportunity for stay-at-home moms like myself or people who just want to look for a creative outlet and who enjoy cooking.”

Crystle Gonzales, home-based chef

San Mateo County’s program is a two-year pilot, starting in October. The county will begin accepting permit applications in August.

For chefs like Gonzales, having a county permit will make it more convenient and safer to make food from home.

The permit program ensures that home kitchens can operate at restaurant-level safety standards.

That means Gonzales won’t have to travel from her residence in Daly City to a commercial kitchen in San Francisco to prepare meals.

Plus, the law helps support up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great opportunity for stay-at-home moms like myself or people who just want to look for a creative outlet and who enjoy cooking,” Gonzales said.

County prioritizes safety and financial support

San Mateo County Board President David Canepa said he is excited about the law, given that people — especially immigrant women — have been cooking in their homes for years.

“This gives people an opportunity to get out of the shadows and to make sure that they’re able to do it right. And it benefits the county because now we have someone who can actually check on the safety of the food,” Canepa said.

But it’s not about enforcement, Canepa said. It’s about providing resources for businesses to thrive, as permit holders will receive food safety training and inspections.

“We’re not in it to find them. That’s not even a part of the program. We’re in it to support them,” Canepa said.

The county’s Environmental Health Services division will oversee the program, by managing application reviews, training for and consultations with businesses, inspections, and complaint response.

Heather Forshey, director of the Environmental Health Services division, said via email that the overarching objective of the program is to protect public health.

Safety first

Safety is also a priority for Jasmine Cuevas, who cooks and sells food from her East Palo Alto home.

Cuevas has been a pastry chef for years but she and her mother started cooking food together at the start of the pandemic. The tamales, tacos and tostadas they sell on weekends help at a time when money is tight.

Right now, Cuevas keeps a clean kitchen and adheres to the safety standards she has learned through her years in the food industry. But without a permit, she fears being shut down or fined if someone complains about their food.

Jasmine Cuevas, of East Palo Alto, cooks Mexican food with her mother on weekends, to help support her family during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jasmine Cuevas)

“We’re good because nobody has complained, nothing has happened, thank God,” Cuevas said. “But what if it does?”

In addition to the convenience and safety assurances, home chefs with a county permit will receive financial benefits.

The county is waiving its normal permit fees during the two-year pilot. Instead, the Board of Supervisors allocated over $200,000 of federal funding directly to Environmental Health Services to cover the cost of the program.

Home chefs with a permit will also be able to apply for $2,500 grants from the county.

Funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, these grants will help 25 permit-holders with startup costs, like food safety training, advertising, marketing and web presence.

This grant funding could come in handy for Cuevas, who says she wants to expand.

“My goal is to open my own restaurant eventually. Right now, I’m just getting the name out there,” Cuevas said.

Success in other counties

Riverside County, home to about 2.5 million people in Southern California, was one of the first places to enact the state’s law and allow home kitchens to operate.

Brent Casey, program chief II with the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, said the permitting program has been a success.

“The numbers (of applicants) have steadily grown since we enacted the ordinance. So that’s a good sign,” Casey said, adding that they continued accepting applications and doing inspections during the pandemic.

Currently, Riverside County has 135 approved microenterprise home kitchens.

And Casey doesn’t see the program going away anytime soon.

When asked about what insights he would share with other counties enacting their own ordinances, Casey said that outreach is important so people know what is or is not approved.

And in the end, Casey said, it’s all about food safety for the public.

“Food safety is so critical for all of our operations whether it be a microenterprise home kitchen operation or a licensed food facility in a brick and mortar type of spot,” Casey said. “The public is our number one concern.”

More information on San Mateo County’s MEHKO rules and permit application process can be found online.