Earlier this month, Utah became the second state in the country to implement a law that allows home cooks to sell prepared meals from their homes. That very good law, H.B. 94, legalizes what have become known as Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKOs).
Utah joins California as the only states with MEHKO laws. These laws are intended to provide low-overhead income potential to out-of-work chefs, stay-at-home parents, recent immigrants, potential restaurant and food truck owners, and students—anyone, really, who has "made side hustles out of their kitchens" before and during the pandemic.
While California's first-in-the-nation MEHKO law broke important ground when it became law in 2019, its implementation has been a mess. That's largely because the law requires municipalities to opt in to the law in order to be covered by it, I explained in September.
"While a handful of counties and cities have expressed interest in adopting the law in their own jurisdictions, no California city or county save Riverside County—not one—has adopted the law and drafted rules to implement it," I wrote.
Thankfully, that's changing.
"Despite fears from a number of sectors, most of which are exaggerated and some of which are not real at all, we are happy that more jurisdictions are opting in to Homemade Food Operations laws: 7 cities and counties in California, so far, and the State of Utah," says Peter Ruddock, California Policy & Implementation Director with the COOK Alliance, the nonprofit group that led the fight for California's law. "This isn't a game for the impatient. It will likely take a while to get these laws widespread, but COOK Alliance is committed to the effort for the long haul."
Ruddock is right that the fears expressed by some opponents of MEHKO laws are often exaggerated or just plain made up. At a public hearing this month in Solvang, for example, one interested member of the public urged the city council to ask county lawmakers to reject plans to opt in to the California MEHKO law.
"The Chamber is adamantly against microkitchens," Solvang Chamber of Commerce leader Tracy Beard told the city council, citing the purported dangers of vehicle traffic that homemade food could cause, along with the "impact [on] the future of gated communities here" that barbecued ribs and fried chicken could have. Beard also called the MEHKO law "nonsense," and urged the city council to "[p]rotect our struggling local restaurants by refusing to pass the proposed MEHKO ordinance."
Although the Solvang council bought those arguments, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors rejected those and similar arguments this month and voted to opt in to the state's MEHKO law.
While California's MEHKO law is flawed (for reasons other than those cited by Beard), Utah's law isn't perfect, either. Like in California, Utah's law also contains permitting and inspection requirements, which irks some. And Utah's law doesn't allow buyers to consume the food in the home where it was produced, meaning home supper clubs aren't legal.
Thankfully, Utah dispensed with California's awful opt-in requirement. Instead, Utah's law caps the number of permits a municipality may issue at a percentage tied to the number of restaurants in a given municipality (15% in larger cities, and 70% in smaller ones). Hypothetically, that means if the state's most populous county, while includes Salt Lake City, has 1,000 restaurants, then the county health department could issue up to 150 MEHKO permits. Under the law, though, the cap will be lifted in a year.
As Ruddock (of the COOK Alliance) noted, we're still in the early days of MEHKO laws. Other states have considered adopting their own MEHKOs. For example, as I noted in a column last month, Washington State has considered a similar law. (That bill stalled, meaning I still have to buy my favorite homemade tamales on the black market.)
MEHKOs—like cottage food laws and food freedom laws—provide more choices for consumers and budding food entrepreneurs alike. That's why I hope MEHKO laws continue to spread to every state in the country.
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