Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

California Food Nannies Shutter Startup for Home Cooks

Josephine, in the Bay Area, linked aspiring food entrepreneurs with hungry neighbors.

red tapeScott Griessel / Dreamstime.comA dozen or so years ago, as my friend Dave was planning a move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, he used the need to clean out his fridge before the move as an excuse to offer a half-empty jar of homemade kimchi for sale on Craigslist. While I don't think the kimchi sold, Dave's effort opened my eyes to the seemingly limitless possibilities of homemade online food sales.

The truth is that while those possibilities are limited theoretically only by imagination, they very often bump up in the real world against—to paraphrase Waylon Jennings—the limits of what the law will allow.

That truth was evident last week, when Bay Area food startup Josephine announced it will close its doors in March.

As I described in a Sacramento Bee op-ed in support of Josephine last year, the company launched nearly four years ago with a mission to provide cooks who are typically underrepresented in restaurant leadership—including women and immigrants—with a platform by which to sell home-cooked meals with their neighbors.

It's a cool idea. And it worked quite well for a time. That is, as I noted, until local health officials "sent cease-and-desist letters to several Josephine cooks."

Josephine responded by trying to work with lawmakers and regulators, pushing a bill in the state legislature that would provide some legal avenue for its cooks. Despite the fact that the bill is now moving through the California legislature, the company decided its passage would be too late for Josephine and its funders.

Josephine didn't have to die. The regulations that have made it impossible for the company to operate should have died instead. But its fate mimics that of other similar home-food startups. A similar New York-based startup, Umi Kitchen, flamed out last year after just four months of operations. I wrote an appreciation of Forage Underground Market, the inventive San Francisco food swap that was shuttered by California state and local health authorities, way back in 2012. And I predicted at the time the food underground movement was just beginning to blossom.

"From underground supper clubs and street lobstah pushas to nonprofit incubator kitchens like San Francisco's La Cocina and for-profit companies like Washington, D.C.'s Feastly that feature accomplished cooks serving meals in their own homes," I wrote, "entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are helping to re-write societal norms around food provisioning in communities around the country on what would appear to be an unprecedented scale."

Since that time, foods made by home cooks have indeed become normalized. For example, every state, save one, now has a cottage food law in place that allows home cooks to prepare and sell certain homemade foods. But cottage food laws typically only allow the sale of so-called "non-potentially hazardous" foods—or foods that are less likely to cause foodborne illnesses. That means foods such as jams, popcorn, fruit pies, spices, teas, and the like are generally allowed, while meat pies and Dave's kimchi, for example, are not.

A couple states, led by Wyoming, have adopted food freedom laws, which are far more welcoming toward and permissive of home cooks than are any cottage food laws.

Unfortunately, the proposed California law, AB 626, the Homemade Food Operations Act, is, though better than the status quo, still flawed. While the bill would allow sales by home cooks, such as those who've worked with Josephine, the law would still place meal and dollar caps on individual sellers, and require home inspections. Each of those requirements raises the specter of government intrusion into the home. It would also allow cities and counties, working together or separately, to continue to ban food sales under the law.

For now, Josephine co-founder Matt Jorgensen told me this week that he and his Josephine colleagues will pour their efforts into the C.O.O.K. Alliance—the acronym stands for "Creating Opportunities, Opening Kitchens"—launched by Josephine and allies to push for change in the state legislature.

"Our work at Josephine was to create more inclusive opportunities in the food industry by allowing home cooks to sell meals directly to their neighbors," Jorgenson tells me. "Although we've decided to wind down the business, we still have unwavering conviction in the momentum of this movement and the potential impact of legislative change."

Photo Credit: Scott Griessel / Dreamstime.com

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Eat the Rich", said ... A Treatise on Economics is a 1998 book by P. J. O'Rourke, humor writer...

    I say, "Eat the Regulators"! (Regulate THIS, assholes!)

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "I say, "Eat the Regulators"! (Regulate THIS, assholes!)"

    Why would anyone want to eat assholes?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well, I have to admit, they might not taste so good...

    Eating them is a way to get RID of them!

    Maybe I will have my dog or my in-sink-erator eat them, and TELL them that I ate 'em! No one will know, it will be our secret, OK?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Because you want to bring joy to your lover, you philistine.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Matthew, do you not eat an occasional hotdog?

  • Elias Fakaname||

    And people here get mad when I suggest purging all the progressives...........

  • Cy||

    I wouldn't feel too horrible about it.. It's either going to be us or the "communists" they'll put in power.

  • silver.||

    ... [earn] income at home ...

    Need occupational licensing.

  • ||

    Tacitus pointed out, 'the more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.'

    There's also an immoral angle for the state''s OCD for over-bearing legislation by people losing their livelihood, it violates their right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.

  • mjerryfuerst||

    Why should those who cook food at home for sale not have to meet req

  • ||

    Re-read the article.

  • Agammamon||

    That's the wrong question.

    The question is, if home-cooked food is safe, how come every one else has to meet the regulations.

    Mind

    Blown

  • Sevo||

    "Why should those who cook food at home for sale not have to meet req"

    Sorry, it's YOUR job to tell us why they should.

  • mjerryfuerst||

    Corrected version: Those who cook food at home for sale should have to meet requirements as restaurants and caterers

  • SQRLSY One||

    Why? Other than "the LAW is the LAW is the LAW, and MUST be obeyed?"

    "Three felonies per day" AKA "Three felonies a day" is a "thing"... Go Google it, read up on it, and THEN justify this law-worshipping thing in your head!

  • Paulpemb||

    Some enterprising person should just say that they are a 'sanctuary city' from these food licensing laws, and dare California to say shit about it.

  • silver.||

    It's too expensive for individuals. When the barrier for market entry is tens of thousands of dollars, only people with significant capital can start a business. This is what leads to regional chains and big restaurateurs, and it reduces the diversity of food available.

    Why not make meeting the requirements voluntary? Those able to fork over the big money would have the advantage of being able to stick a health department certificate on their wall and charge more for food. The smaller operations would be at-your-own-risk like a potluck (and current restaurants already have a disclaimer on the menu about food-borne illness). When these businesses are at the chef's house, customers can audit the conditions of food preparation themselves and/or just not buy food that makes them uncomfortable. I know some people that absolutely can not eat cottage foods due to fear of insufficient food safety, and that's perfectly fine.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    The whole point of most occupational regulations is to provide significant barriers to entry. Period. The idea is to add so much obligatory regulatory overhead to startup businesses so as to keep the little people out.

    For example, in WA it is expressly illegal to make a profit selling an automobile unless the seller has a dealer's license.

  • Cy||

    Look up the Taxi "license" in NYC.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    "Curbstoning is illegal in most cities. What's more, curbstoners put consumers at risk, release unsafe vehicles onto the streets, hurt local businesses, and deny local governments the fees and tax revenue they need to provide essential public services."

    Hmm, which of these "problems" are the bureaucrats most concerned about?

  • Paper Wasp||

    Need to keep buggy whip manufacturers car dealerships in business forever, you wouldn't want car salespeople to have to look for work, would you?

  • Sevo||

    "Those who cook food at home for sale should have to meet requirements as restaurants and caterers"

    Assertion =/= argument. Try again. Or get lost.

  • Ben of Houston||

    MJ, do you know what these standards are? I looked at opening a catering business with my wife, and the actual requirement was insane. In short, to use a kitchen for a business in Texas, you need fire doors that can fully seal it off from the residential part of the home. With our home's design, that was utterly impossible, and it would be prohibitively expensive in any case. I'm not going to build an entire separate building with an entire separate kitchen to cook chicken for other people. Since I actually follow the law instead of ignoring it, that killed my wife's business idea.

  • Cy||

    Aren't you a good little taxpayer! Ok, back to your 40 hours a week

  • ||

    Isn't Texas where you need to be politically connected to arrange flowers? Small businesses are not welcome.

  • Paper Wasp||

    Maybe we should just not allow people to have kitchens in their homes, so that there's no risk that home cooks accidentally make someone in their own families sick. Maybe people can instead go to a government agency to pick up their daily rations of food.

    Seriously, if the law is so concerned that your neighbors are going to get sick from something you cook, why don't they care as much about your family members?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Americans are not smart enough to vote for Rand Paul for President. Republicans sure arent giving him the primary. They don't really care about fiscal responsibility.

  • AlmightyJB||

    How did I get on this thread?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Maybe you were hungry?

  • Robert||

    Drunk, more likely.

  • Cy||

    Back button abuse! You should be more careful comrade. The capitalist scum are everywhere.

  • Robert||

    Why not go to the customer's home for the cooking? Then you're just hiring a cook to work in your own kitchen, which I'm sure is legal.

  • BestAdvisor||

    Looks pretty ridiculous, but should be interesting.
    Though there are a lot of strange people cooking in electric kettles or air fryers.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online