Culinary entrepreneurs are providing meals out of their homes via a handful of sites in Seattle and beyond, testing health-code and business-licensing rules.
In the minutes before Zyanya Breuer opened her home to strangers, she prepared her dinner table for a food-sharing experience, similar to how a Lyft driver lends a ride or an Airbnb host supplies lodging.
She was in the final stage of transforming her Capitol Hill apartment into an elegant venue for a pop-up style chocolate tasting, an event that started as an online post advertising her passion for bringing people together over food.
Meal-sharing, a trend that has grown from the peer-to-peer business model, has gained popularity in places like San Francisco and New York City, recently picking up in Seattle. In Paris, the concept has even started a war between at-home cooks and members of the restaurant industry, who say the household operations are taking away business.
Aspiring foodies are connecting with hungry patrons for one-time meals and tastings through sites such as EatWith and Meal Sharing. Hosts typically sign up for free and create profiles to post food events listed at various prices, sometimes after completing an extensive application process. Guests usually pay a fee to attend the events.
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“It kind of breaks a lot of the Seattle stereotypes” about residents’ aloof chill toward new people, Breuer said. “You have all these strangers in one place.”
But some Washington officials say the meal-sharing sites are navigating through murky policy territory. Hosts may be unintentionally skirting legal regulations by dishing out meals and booze without obtaining adequate licenses and permits, they say.
“There’s an added layer of complexity. You’re not talking about a licensed business. You’re talking about a home,” said Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman Mikhail Carpenter. “They’re liable.”
Hosts without a liquor license who are providing alcohol in exchange for their fee are breaking the law, he said. Authorities also say the at-home cooks could be violating health regulations and business licensing rules, as well.
The sites’ ride-hailing counterparts, Lyft and Uber, have encountered battles with city regulators across the country, spurring a discussion among authorities on best practices for allowing emerging peer-to-peer technology.
The food events range in cost — sometimes dubbed a “suggested donation” or “chip-in” — and hosts usually set their own prices, with the sites receiving a percentage of guests’ fees. While some chefs simply use the revenue to cover ingredients, others are cooking for a profit.
Although hosts can usually approve or deny who attends their events, the get-togethers are marketed to anyone on the Internet, unlike potlucks or casual dinner parties.
This means they fall under an umbrella of food operations that typically require approval from health authorities, said Becky Elias, food and facilities section manager for Public Health — Seattle & King County. The department wants to ensure kitchens are clean, food is safe and cooks are following health codes, she said.
At this point, Elias said, the meals aren’t a type of food model the department recognizes for permitting, and authorities could shut down and fine at-home chefs who are cooking for members of the public without proper licensing.
“We’re learning more and more about these businesses, but it’s a recent phenomenon being introduced to us,” she said. “At this point in time, home operations aren’t something that are permitted.”
Most sites make it clear in their agreement terms that participants are responsible for ensuring their food is safe, and people are hosting the events on their own terms.
Elias said if a host contacts her department, it would work with the person to help make the event legal. Cooks should apply for a food-service permit, like other caterers and home-based food establishments, she said.
And though the county’s food code doesn’t include the model now, officials could consider rule changes to include these types of meals in the future, Elias said.
Also, if hosts are charging for events, the city requires them to have a business license, according to the city’s finance and administrative services department. The transaction is also potentially subject to an admission tax, and hosts should report their revenue to the city, according to the department.
Authorities say licensing and regulation for these types of experiences are constantly evolving, and they’re open to discussing with site operators how to make sure the messages are getting to people who are doing them.
It’s a balance of enforcing codes, they say, without stifling entrepreneurship.
Meal Sharing founder Jay Savsani said there’s a lot of variance in laws across states, so it’s challenging to create a one-size-fits-all policy for protecting hosts. He started his site more than two years ago in Chicago, and it now includes hundreds of members spanning the globe.
But he said if the meal-sharing model reaches a point where lawmakers decide to formalize policies, he’s ready to find ways to make sure hosts are properly protected.
“At the time [legislators] come to us, we want to be there to work with them, similar to Airbnb and Lyft; those companies had to work with legislators to make it work for their drivers or hosts,” he said. “We’re molding and trying to figure out how this kind of works. A lot of times, there’s nothing on the books for counties on [treating] home cooking.”
At the chocolate tasting, Breuer divided expensive bars into small bits for sampling, as her husband, Atish Kalyan, made a final tidying sweep of the couple’s home.
The last-minute preparations preceded the arrival of guests: Tourists from Montana, a local chocolatier, a pair of au pairs and two others, all of whom paid $25 each for the event.
“Are we doing shoes on or off?” Kalyan asked Breuer before attendees arrived for the three-hour tasting.
Meal-sharing carries a level of intimacy, in contrast to some peer-to-peer services. Guests are relying solely on hosts to make the experiences worthwhile, seeking insight on new recipes and new camaraderie, for instance.
The next day, Christopher Bourgea for the first time hosted a tea-tasting at his apartment in Seattle’s Chinatown International District through a meal-sharing site. He attracted seven tea junkies, all of whom sat close around his Japanese-style tea table for a “Gongfu Cha” style ceremony in his quaint, one-bedroom home. Guests paid $7.
Breuer and Bourgea said they’re not in the food-sharing business for money. They say it’s a way to bring people together over food and to practice their serving skills without committing to a full-time restaurant gig.
Breuer said, if necessary, she would take steps to obtain proper licenses, and Bourgea said that considering the applications’ formality, it makes sense for officials to discuss ways for ensuring the get-togethers don’t violate codes.
“This is just a great outlet to meet people without, you know, spending too much money and going out,” Bourgea said.