A Home-Cooked Startup

When it comes to any business revolving around food and/or drink, there are miles of bureaucratic red tape that needs to be navigated if you don’t want to slapped with health code violations. This is something that the California-based startup Josephine, which lets people cook meals at home and sell them to neighbors, is currently experiencing firsthand. To forward their mission, Josephine has been sponsoring a homemade food bill in California aimed to legalize the sales of prepared meals and other food from small-scale operations.

After some of Josephine’s cooks received cease and desist letters for the illegal sale of food from their homes last May, the company had to put a hold on their operations in Oakland. Under Cottage Food Law in California, you can only sell homemade food that’s “non-potentially hazardous”, so unlikely to grow bacteria at room temperature. So that includes baked goods, candy, dried fruit, popcorn and dried pasta. So if this bill passes, then there will be wider implications and benefits for both street vendors and smaller catering operations.

Since Josephine’s business is being threatened by this bill, there’s a particularly strong motivation to clear everything up. This is actually the second time that the company has sponsored a bill, although their last efforts met with failure. This time around, the company is hoping for a different outcome, and has been working with a group of cooks, legal experts and food and labor justice organizations. The bill they sponsored last year looked to exclude homemade food sales from the food code, comparing their operations to those of a community potluck. Nonetheless, regulators still wanted to be involved in the process, so the bill was ultimately scrapped. This modified bill proposes an entirely new permit that requires some specifications around training and sanitation. If it passes, then Josephine would be able to legally resume their operations in California.

This situation, as well as the law that Josephine is looking to pass, reminds me of the current American brewing industry. In the late 19th and early 20th century, America was home to a thriving beer industry with hundreds of years of history. During Prohibition, only a handful of breweries, mainly the largest, were able to stay open by manufacturing non-alcoholic beer. After Prohibition ended in 1933, the small number of larger breweries still in operation were able to dominate the market and consolidate their power, putting their competitors out of business. By the 1970s, America had fewer breweries than ever before. Yet that changed in 1978, when Jimmy Carter signed a law legalizing homebrewing. There are now over 3,000 breweries in the US, which have pioneered American brewing and brought it into the modern age. Considering this precedent, it will be interesting to see what home cooking businesses will do to the American food scene.

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