Prashanthi Reddy is passionate about home-style Indian food. The kind she grew up eating at her mom’s house and with relatives. A New Jersey native, Reddy owns the coffee shop Makeda and Mingus in Greenwood. The shop does not have a kitchen, but Reddy cooks a lot at home and has been sharing the food of her family with her community in myriad ways; through Airbnb experiences and online cooking classes. What she would really like to do is cook food for people and sell it to them. Yet, with rent, permits staffing and food costs to consider, the barriers to entry are high for budding restaurateurs.
But a bill is moving through the state channels of government that, if passed, could allow people like Reddy to sell meals made out of their home kitchens.
Last Tuesday, state representatives approved House Bill 1258, which would allow for the operation and permitting of microenterprise home kitchens. The proposal was sponsored by Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, and passed in a 58-38 vote mostly along party lines. Now, it goes to the Senate floor and must be voted on by April 11. If it passes, it will directly benefit “people that really want to get into the food business but may face pretty big barriers to do so, particularly cost. This is a pathway of opportunity for them that is slightly lower-barrier,” Frame says.
This is the second session in which Rep. Frame has brought the bill to the House. The bill will allow for a pilot program where entrepreneurs interested in starting a home-based food business can apply for 100 available permits through the health department to become a licensed microenterprise home kitchen.
“It’s really about economic opportunity. Particularly when I have the community that is most impacted — people of color, immigrants, refugees — coming to me and saying it’s what they want and need,” Frame says.
For Reddy, the ability to run a microenterprise kitchen represents a chance to share her culture and fulfill her passion. But it’s also a way for people who might not have much experience in small business ownership to dip their toes into starting a restaurant without having to pour their entire life savings into it.
“A lot of artisans don’t come from a business background, we just come from wearing our heart on our sleeve. That’s the value I see in this bill. We get both the business and the human side of what people would be doing out of their homes,” Reddy says.
Under the bill, the permits would be spread throughout the state based on county population size; counties of more than 2 million would be allowed to issue up to 30 permits, counties with populations between 490,000 and 2 million would be allowed to issue up to 20 permits, and counties with a population of fewer than 490,000 would be allowed to issue up to 10 permits.
The bill is separate from Washington’s existing Cottage Food Operation law, which allows for the sale of mostly baked goods, nut mixes, candies, jams, and harvested fruit, but still limits those foods with the highest potential for foodborne illnesses, including raw milk, raw oysters or other shellfish, or cured meats.
Additionally, the bill has caps on production, stating that the operation “may sell no more than 20 individual meals or equivalent portions per day and no more than 100 individual meals or meal equivalent portions per week.”
If the bill passes the Senate, the earliest these budding entrepreneurs could apply for permits with the state Department of Health is July 2022. Permit applicants must operate out of their primary residence, must have their spaces inspected, and must be covered with a liability insurance policy of no less than $500,000.
However, those who oppose the bill say that these microenterprise kitchens should be held to the same standards as a commercial kitchen, and critics are concerned that without a commercial kitchen setting, microenterprise operators won’t have to follow the same food code.
“Although I originally signed on as a cosponsor of House Bill 1258, I voted against it when it came to the floor because none of the recommended changes from experts in the hospitality industry were implemented,” Rep. Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup, said in a released statement
The experts tapped were focused on finding solutions to reduce barriers to entry in the industry while still ensuring food safety standards would be followed.
“Unfortunately, the bill we passed exempts these new micro kitchens from critical food safety standards that are necessary for public health and safety in Washington state. As a result, I could not vote in favor of the bill,” Chambers said in the statement.
Food safety language in the bill stipulates that operators are bound by many of the same restrictions as traditional restaurants: Kitchens must undergo a rigorous inspection by a local health jurisdiction prior to receiving a permit, and the results must be posted in a conspicuous location. There are additional provisions: There can be no infants, children or pets in the home kitchen during preparation, packaging or handling of food. Food preparation cannot be performed in nonpermitted areas of the house (indoor or outdoor), and businesses can’t sell through a third-party delivery service.
“I think their concerns are a bit overblown,” Frame said, reiterating that the bill is “about access; [these potential business owners] don’t have access or they can’t afford it so they’ll be unregulated or won’t do it. I opt for this middle ground that recognizes the barriers are too high, but we want to have that pathway to opportunity,” Frame responded.
Opponents of the bill also question whether allowing microenterprise kitchens would create more competition with existing restaurants and catering companies in a time when many food industry businesses are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Let’s take a giant step back. We’re talking about 100 meals per week, max. This isn’t serious competition to full-scale catering businesses or full-scale restaurants. I’d argue you’re talking about the number of meals that a large family cooks on a regular basis,” Frame says.