The colorful plates at Lucy Silva's Barra de Pan Californian restaurant in Corona, Calif., Are not going to stop coming. They are a force in themselves, arriving in quick succession until they threaten to overtake the outdoor table. There's a steaming plate of birria tacos, the tortillas of which are red and soft after being soaked in the stock, as well as tacos al vapor, enchiladas, and cafe de olla. Silva, whose friendly eyes smile out from behind a mask, never slows down.
Like every restaurant in California at the moment, the food in the Barra de Pan is limited to a single large terrace area. The kitchen is also outside, a mishmash that includes a retro suburban four-burner oven, a tacada for tacos, a refrigerator, and a homemade pizza oven. She and her daughters cook, fulfill orders, talk to customers at socially distant tables, and occasionally duck in to pile dirty dishes for late night cleaning. The work in the Barra de Pan takes its toll, but for the Silva family, going to bed at the end of a long shift means simply going upstairs to their bedrooms.
Barra de Pan is a home restaurant in the vast Inland Empire and has received full operating license thanks to the California Retail Food Code AB-626, which legalizes the operation of micro-business kitchens. The newly introduced regulation allows anyone to run a licensed restaurant from their kitchen and dining room. No commercial space, food truck, ghost kitchen, or staff required – just get some local permits to get certified by the Riverside County Health Department.
AB-626 may seem like a minor adjustment to the state's extensive food regulations, but in reality it's much more than that: the new law could spark a food revolution in California right when it's needed most. Between the mandates to stay at home, the high unemployment rate, and the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, the entrepreneurial opportunities that AB-626 offers could mean tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of local chefs who give their communities the food they want most want food. And while Riverside is the only county in the state that fully implements AB-626, the dozen of restaurants that have been online since January 2020 prove that a legal home cooking path is not only possible, but necessary.
Lucy Silva cooks in the outdoor oven of her Barra de Pan restaurant
A discada for tacos, surrounded by various grilled dishes
Tables in the Barra de Pan in Riverside, California, a licensed restaurant
Barra de Pan's kitchen-cum-living-room, put together by Lucy Silva and her daughters
In late 2008, Los Angeles, like the rest of America, was hit hard by the Great Recession. Restaurants closed, jobs disappeared, and people who had been on the financial tightrope of the hospitality industry for life suddenly dangled in space. And yet, just a year later, LA spawned the modern food truck movement when small groups of chefs, cooks, and newly shaped owners jointly decided to forego large financing and stationary locations. The food truck revolution changed America and ushered in a new era of low-cost entry and great culinary ideas. Not only did it democratize the process of running a restaurant, it literally got the show onto the streets. From food truck reality shows to movies like Head Chef, food trucks have been seen as entry points across the country.
Now LA is once again hit by mass layoffs, rolling restaurant closings, and the types of real estate problems that mirror, if not worse, 2008 as the pandemic continues. With luck and political will, AB-626 could transform household kitchens into the food movement of 2020 and 2021.
Akshay Prabhu has tried to legalize restaurants in California for years. As a neuroscience student at UC Davis, he ran his own underground restaurant and dreamed of building a mobile hot dog cart before encountering various legal hurdles. Without an existing legal framework, Prabhu decided to work directly with politicians in Sacramento. His question was simple: what would it take to rethink the word "restaurant" and legalize micro-entrepreneurs cooking from their homes?
This is how the AB-626 movement was born and along with it Prabhus platform Foodnome, a website and app that helps home cooks get approval and has their restaurants in one place. Prabhu was not alone in his endeavors; State Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, whose district spans much of Riverside and Imperial counties, took the bill to the governor's desk, as did Cook Alliance, a nonprofit partner who also works to bring restaurants to life.
Akshay Prabhu, founder of Foodnome
Foodnome (Official Photo)
Prabhu's company is simplifying the process for budding restaurateurs, who until now have mostly been skin-colored women and immigrants. The staff help the chefs at home go through the cumbersome approval process. The initial cost (usually a little more than $ 1000) covers the paperwork, liability insurance, and startup toolkit of $ 651. Chefs are also required to complete a week-long food management certification course and undergo a kitchen inspection by public health officials. Once approved, they can sell groceries from home.
And while these entrepreneurs don't need to use Foodnome as the listing directory for their business (they can market themselves on Instagram or other social media platforms), its forte is being listed alongside almost every other licensed private company under AB-626 – about a few dozen are mainly spread across Riverside, Corona and the Moreno Valley.
It is Prabhu's belief (both pre and pre-pandemic) that home restaurants can serve as a way forward for avid self-starters who could then open a retail section and hire more people while serving the food, the community likely wants to eat. "Our home restaurants are representative of the diversity of the community," says Prabhu. "You deal with many problems in the food wasteland."
"There are so many people in these communities who could serve food," says Prabhu. "We need to reduce the distance food travels and increase the availability of food in key areas."
“Our home restaurants represent the diversity of the community. They deal with many problems in the food wasteland. "
At the moment, Prabhu says, "There are too many barriers." The language of AB-626 gives the public health authorities and regional governing bodies (city or county) "full discretion" to actually set up the framework for approving home restaurants, meaning there is no formal statewide authority that does all Permits monitored. Licenses and health departments in one county do not have to follow the same approval process as the next county. In fact, they don't have to allow AB-626 at all.
Right now, Riverside is the only county in California that has AB-626 in operation, though Prabhu says others are considering the move. San Bernardino is looking at neighboring Riverside as a test case before deciding on its own approach, and Alameda County – home to major cities like Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont and Hayward – should also consider this with initial approvals, hopefully before the end of 2020.
LA county advocates are calling on county regulators to have AB-626 operational for more than a year, which could help generate the necessary revenue through the licensing, licensing and taxation process. After all, underground restaurants like Carnitas El Momo and the original Michelin-starred kitchen have been proliferating in the neighborhood for years, which is highly praised by the public, although there is always the risk that they will be closed for illegal operations. With tighter enforcement, a stronger lobby for stationary restaurants, a much larger population, and overlapping jurisdictions (Pasadena and Long Beach, for example, each have their own health departments), an immediate move is unlikely – LA County officials in particular are already struggling to find one Streamline way for longtime local street vendors.
Silva did not decide to open her own restaurant under AB-626 because she wanted to change the whole business model. The single mother of three has cooked groceries for others for decades, mostly through local initiatives like Corona Child Nutrition Services and her own nonprofit Food Runners, which work with trained volunteer students to provide inexpensive catering to other nonprofits in the Inland Empire and donations.
For years, Silva's food was made off-site in an unlicensed kitchen before an anonymous tip led to action by the local health department. Silva says she was fortunate to have an open ear for local political officials (and the help of a $ 1,000 grant from United Way) to help them reconcile in a commissioners kitchen, but the idea that she Being unable to legally offer them food in need just because it was cooked in their house always seemed stupid. The arrival of Foodnome and AB-626 came at the right time and provided a legal way to move on. "I thought I'd do it," says Silva of her garden restaurant in Corona, "so why not make it official?"
Their approval process at Riverside County took several months, starting in October 2019 and ending with a fully licensed restaurant at home in January 2020, the first month they were officially approved. While waiting, Silva and her daughters spent time optimizing their corner lot, which already included a blooming front garden and a flagstone.
"When I got divorced, I told my husband that I just wanted the house and the children," says Tijuana-born Silva. She has both. By the time Riverside County gave final approval, Silva's exterior had grown to include half a dozen dining tables, fairy lights, several work sinks, and all of those outdoor cooking utensils. The restaurant was a hit thanks to its colorful ambience and inviting, familiar Mexican comfort life. Customers started a night under the stars with tacos and ended with Cafe de olla and Buñuelos, at least until the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
Evon McMurray's eat-in kitchen in Eastvale, California
For Evon McMurray in Eastvale, a rolling suburb southwest of the town of Riverside, AB-626 was nothing more than a chance to do what she loves, even into retirement.
"I've always had a restaurant," says McMurray from the front door of her apartment building. As a teenager growing up in Louisiana, she watched her father switch jobs, including serving as a short-term cook, and worked for her aunt at a diner in Grambling, Louisiana, before moving west. When she was 18, she and her in-laws went to a restaurant in South LA, near Vermont, called A Family Affair – a fitting name for McMurray's trip.
"My home has always been the meeting place for the family," says McMurray, who was raised by her single father and nine siblings. Today she has five children of her own, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. When her sister died, McMurray said she "inherited" her 76-year-old deaf and blind brother-in-law and his 33-year-old son with Down syndrome. Much like their first business in Southern California, McMurray's Eastvale home is now both a restaurant and a real family affair.
McMurray's menu at her Foodnome Jerky Jerk restaurant is an eclectic collection of personal items. "I'm between two worlds: Southern Louisiana and Northern Louisiana," she says of her culinary inspiration, "and everyone thinks the cuisine is the same. It's not. If you go to New Orleans, you'll get gumbo, You will get jambalaya. When you get to northern Louisiana you get red beans and rice, fried chicken, smothered potatoes and smothered pork chops. I mix the two because we have that Cajun-Caribbean-African influence. That's how we grew up. "
Plates of jerk chicken, red beans, rice and more at Jerky Jerk
Evon McMurray cuts plantains in her Jerky Jerk kitchen restaurant
Much like the growing Mediterranean soul food movement in LA County's suburb of Antelope Valley, food at Jerky Jerk ranges between classics like pineapple upside-down cakes and baked mac and cheese to oxtails, jerk chicken, fried plantains and red beans and rice.
Despite a written suggestion for a possible future restaurant (affectionately called Bean Pot), McMurray says the timing is wrong. And the money isn't there anyway. "Financially, I can't do that," she says. Plus, their work is needed right now at home, not in the world, and that has made AB-626 a perfect balance for this uncertain moment.
Chef My Nhan Tran uses her menu in My Fair Kitchen to reach out to her local and cultural community, drawing on her deep connections to the hearty foods of her past. Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who was born in Soc Trang province, south of Ho Chi Minh City, says cooking more expressive versions of familiar dishes helped her connect with her neighbors in Eastvale. "I've just started to discover my passion," says Tran. “I would go home and try to cook everything I ate and just remember the taste. I might go to YouTube, but I always know what it's supposed to look like. "
Trans aesthetic can best be described as the most beautiful Vietnamese food you have ever seen. Her setup is casual and tucked away in a stucco corner house. From the built-in oven of her slate-colored suburban kitchen, a butter-poached lobster tail could emerge over garlic noodles, a rich addition to the herbaceous pho (with handmade meatballs, of course) that arrives next.
My Nhan Tran prepares a Vietnamese stew in her Foodnome-listed restaurant My Fair Kitchen
Layout of the Vietnamese fish stew
Initially, Tran attracted customers (mostly friends and neighbors) by offering their food for free, partly to test new recipes, partly for the crowd it attracted. Their restaurant is one of the newer ones on Foodnome in relative terms as it wasn't approved until this summer. The lack of legal documentation before AB-626 left her in legally troubled waters, and Tran – a former software engineer and now a home mother of four – never wanted to risk her future opportunities by taking money upfront.
"I don't want to do anything illegal. I want this to be a real career."
"I don't want to do anything illegal," says Tran of her time cooking in the vast underground of unlicensed restaurants in Southern California. “I want this to be a real career. I don't want people to think I'm just doing this for a quick buck. I don't like it when you think that way. "
Tran says she has a plan to attract a crowd even if the COVID-19 pandemic is in the air and more people are joining the kitchen at home movement. "I'm going to make Vietnamese that nobody sells," she says. “I want to be different. When I cook my photo, it has to be different from the restaurants here. “Across the board, Tran is already planning the debut of a Soc Trang specialty: fermented fish noodle soup (Bun Nuoc Leo), a vermicelli noodle soup made from pork and crab (Bun Rieu Cua) and a variety of grilled fish and meat dishes that can be shared. Most Vietnamese restaurants in Southern California don't, and for them that's exactly the point.
With so many talented chefs on his side, Prabhu knows that Foodnome will face an uphill battle if it comes to continuing to fight for AB-626. The pandemic has shrouded the already slow bureaucracy centers of the state in molasses, and existing restaurants are increasingly fighting publicly just to keep their doors open one more day. However, this is no reason to hide from the struggle for better access and inexpensive entry into the dining world for so many avid entrepreneurs. If AB-626 can expand into Alameda County, San Bernardino County, and beyond, the results could be of great benefit not only to Foodnome but also to diners, chefs, cities, counties, and communities at large. It could even lead to a new golden age for American food that doesn't focus on large urban areas or deeply pocketed investors.
There is already competition, including Glendale-based DishDivvy, which has been tinkering with a similar model since 2017. It's also a delicate time confronting the restaurant industry with a new ownership model when existing stationary owners and lobby groups wage a public battle with government officials to stay alive as COVID-19 rages across the state. "The restaurant lobby is pretty strong at the county level," says Prabhu, also because "the cities make a lot of money from restaurants" and the revenue they generate. The California restaurants had sales of nearly $ 100 billion in 2018.
For many, however, these household kitchens will not generate enough revenue to compete directly with existing commercial restaurants. "The people welcomed me very much," says Silva, but at the moment it is not becoming a full-fledged restaurant. The moment is too volatile and AB-626 has allowed her to make enough money to be sustainable from home. While the law specifically provides for "no more than one full-time equivalent grocery worker" per permit, she runs the restaurant with her daughters who have their own jobs and help out when they can.
Much like the home industry's wholesale production laws, AB-626 also limits money earned to "no more than $ 50,000 in gross annual verifiable sales," but for everything she's doing right now, that number sounds like enough to Silva. "I've always wanted to open a restaurant and have my own business, so that's just perfect."
Jerky Jerk's McMurray agrees. It's hard to imagine a better time than now to continue your passion for cooking while making the extra income you need, and it's hard to imagine a better place to do it than right in your own kitchen.
"When you're at the table, you get more information from eating than you would from any question-and-answer session," says McMurray. "It's the way to bring love home."
A range of dishes from Barra de Pan, a licensed restaurant in Riverside, California.