The California Homemade Food Act, AB 1616, may be a game-changer for entrepreneurs who want to cook in their kitchen and sell on the street.

Vendors who make breads, nut mixes, fruit butters, preserves and other foods that don’t spoil at room temperature would be able to legally cook from home if the bill passes.

The state assembly’s Health Committee amended the bill on April 10, and it will go back to the committee for a re-vote on April 17, said Pamela Davis, communications director for Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who authored the bill. So far there’s not a lot of opposition to the legislation, according to the sponsors, and it could be on the governor’s desk by August.

“The system is broken,” wrote Iso Rabins, founder of Forage SF, in a letter criticizing current food laws and supporting the bill. “AB 1616 would establish a simple regulatory system for micro-enterprises producing non-potentially hazardous foods to operate in the open and with reasonable oversight of local health departments.”

At present, the California Retail Food Code makes it illegal to sell any food that has been prepared in a home kitchen. That means that whether vendors are mixing granola or curing pastrami, they have to rent time in commercial kitchens, which can be expensive.

La Cocina starts at $25/hour for a single prep table, $35 for a double. La Victoria Bakery offers a monthly rate, starting at $750 for one day a week and going up to $3,000 for 24/7 access.

AB 1616 would create a new type of food vendor in California, a “cottage food operation” that would be exempt from the Retail Food Code and therefore allowed to prepare “nonpotentially hazardous foods” from a home kitchen.

The bill defines two different types of cottage food operations, one that would only sell directly to customers and another that could also sell through a third party. Think of a baker who sells coffee cake through a local café, said John Ferrera, Assemblyman Gatto’s chief of staff.

The bill would also require local health agencies like San Francisco’s Department of Public Health to create systems for regulating cottage vendors. However, DPH would not be able to inspect a cottage food operation more than once a year unless it received a complaint.

Rabins said that small food enterprises possess inherent quality controls that large ones lack. “You’re cooking food by yourself, selling it to 10 people,” he said. “If one of those people got sick, everyone would know, and people wouldn’t buy your product any more.”

For jammers and granola-makers alike, AB 1616 would lower initial permit costs to the $25 to $100 range, depending on the price of the county-approved food handler’s certificate, said Ferrera.

That could open up the consumer market to small-time vendors whose business options have narrowed since the DPH shut down Rabins’ Underground Market, which operated in 2010 at the Public Works event space.

Rabins said cottage vending offers entrepreneurs a way to test their product and possibly move to a brick-and-mortar operation.

Mission Cheese, Nosh This (maker of chocolate-covered bacon), Josey Baker Bread and the barbecue sauce maker SFQ all got their start at the Underground Market.

SFQ founder Michelle Manfredi recalled her business’s infancy: “I didn’t have the resources for La Cocina,” she said.

After SFQ’s early success at the Underground Market, Manfredi was again able to avoid commercial kitchen rental costs, by “co-packing” with a business partner who provided the approved prep space and helped with large-scale production and canning.

But if AB 1616 passes, small food vendors may not have to strategize their way into the market any more.

Even if the bill fails, vendors who make and sell “nonpotentially hazardous foods” will have another option when Rabins reopens the Underground Market in June at Public Works. But this time around, the market’s vendors will need to have county-prescribed permits and food that’s been produced in a commercial kitchen.

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