FOOD & DRINK 2021 | Cover Story | #insurance | #seniors | #elderly
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] – Volume 22, Issue 15
FOOD & DRINK 2021
This year’s annual Food and Drink issue comes out just as restaurants and bars can serve more customers with fewer restrictions. But eating out isn’t relegated to brick-and-mortar establishments, something the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted. Staff Writer Malea Martin writes about Santa Barbara County’s recently passed ordinance allowing. The pandemic also gave rise to outdoor eating, something many Central Coast cities are struggling to decide the future of. Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash has the story.
Despite some opposition, home kitchen operations are now legal in Santa Barbara County—and local chefs are eager to get started
BY MALEA MARTIN
Santa Maria resident Bobbi Thompson was one of the first Santa Barbara County residents to obtain a cottage food permit back when they were first legalized eight years ago. It allowed her to bake cupcakes and cakes out of her home kitchen and sell them, a small business venture that Thompson found fun and fulfilling.
Today, Thompson has a new vision: She wants to cook warm meals out of her home, food she would deliver to elderly residents at nearby mobile home parks. She said the idea is inspired by her mom.
“As she got older, she cooked for herself less and less,” Thompson recalled. “I didn’t like some of the things she was eating—I didn’t think it was healthy. When I would visit her, I would cook for her. … I thought, there’s got to be other people out there that are living by themselves that would like a home-cooked meal.”
Thompson already has a name for it: Chef’s Pick of the Day.
“It’s not going to be the same thing over and over,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be food that’s kicked up a notch, a little modernized. Stuff that maybe your mom used to make, only it’s got a different twist on it.”
Beginning June 15, Thompson will be allowed to apply for a microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO) permit in Santa Barbara County and, once approved, begin building her business. While cottage food permits, the kind Thompson obtained to sell her baked goods, allow people to make and sell shelf-stable items out of their home kitchens, these permits do not allow the sale of perishables, like a freshly wood-fired pizza or straight-off-the-stove tamales. Assembly Bill 626 changed that by adding a new type of permit for MEHKOs.
Effective beginning in 2019, AB 626 allows MEHKOs in California—but only if a jurisdiction opts in to the legislation. Unlike cottage food permits, which are legal throughout the state, hopeful chefs must wait until their county brings home kitchen operations to a vote. In 2019, Riverside County became the first to opt in. Now, two years later, several more jurisdictions have joined, including Santa Barbara County at a May 11 Board of Supervisors meeting.
It wasn’t a clean sweep, though: The board was split 3-2 on the decision, and public comment was similarly divided. Home cooking advocates and Santa Barbara County residents called in to voice their support for MEHKOs, while city elected officials and restaurant owners urged the board not to allow them. While Supervisors Gregg Hart, Das Williams, and Joan Hartmann ultimately voted to pass the ordinance allowing MEHKOs, Supervisors Bob Nelson and Steve Lavagnino, both of North County, did not support the motion.
Environmental Health Services (EHS) Director Lars Seifert gave the staff presentation, recommending that the board adopt the ordinance. He gave examples of home-based food businesses that EHS has received inquiries about from county residents: ideas that, without the adoption of the MEHKO ordinance, would not be allowed.
“A local farmer who wants to offer educational cooking classes and tasting events using his specialty produce,” Seifert said. “An entrepreneur who wants to try testing out their restaurant idea before signing the lease on a brick-and-mortar restaurant. A personal chef interested in preparing nutritious meals for senior citizens. Cottage food operators who would like to expand their menus to include wedding cakes, filled doughnuts, or cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. Families who want to make and sell pumpkin pies, tamales, and other specialty foods during the holidays.”
Seifert’s local examples are just a few of the many forms that MEHKOs can take if a county opts in to AB 626.
“As intended by the state legislation, MEHKOs would expand home-based business opportunities, particularly for those who may lack access to capital, or face other barriers to entry into the formal economy, such as child or elder care responsibilities in a home setting,” Seifert said.
But multiple elected city officials who spoke at the meeting felt differently about the ordinance. They said cities would be forced to play a new enforcement role without getting a choice, that home kitchen operations might put too much grease into city sewer systems, and that such operations would create unfair competition to local brick-and-mortar restaurants. Some speakers also raised concerns about health hazards of less regulated kitchen operations.
“I’m here to urge you not to approve the ordinance allowing microenterprise home kitchen operations,” Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino said at the May 11 supervisors meeting. “I’ve been in business in this town for over 30 years. I support entrepreneurs, but I think people have their head in the sky if they think that this is what this is all about.”
Patino specifically expressed concerns about grease blockages from home cooking.
“The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is not going to come after the homeowner or the resident, but they will come after the city of Santa Maria for the violation,” Patino said. “It’s going to be a big hit on our code compliance people.”
Peter Ruddock is the California policy and implementation director with COOK Alliance, a nonprofit that advocated for the state to pass the MEHKO legislation. From his perspective, there are already plenty of people operating home kitchen businesses illegally, and adopting a MEHKO ordinance would only encourage these operations to get permitted, educated, and regulated.
Ruddock estimates that before the pandemic, there were 50,000 people in California operating home kitchen businesses without a permit, and he believes those numbers have close to doubled during the pandemic, he told the Sun.
“They’re already doing this,” he said. “If we regulate them, not only do they not have to hide, they get education. The food safety will get even better. … There are a lot of advantages.”
Still, some city officials feel the new allowances are being thrust upon them without a choice, and they’re concerned the onus will fall on them to regulate.
“We believe that this would be undue hardship imposed on the city,” Solvang City Manager Xenia Bradford said at the meeting. “We also are concerned with code enforcement efforts, that this would all fall onto the city, rather than the county.”
Third District Supervisor Hartmann commiserated with cities over this concern, but she ultimately supported the ordinance.
“The county is making a decision that affects cities. We often promote local self-control, city self-determination, and that’s a difficult one,” Hartmann said. “I think it has to be balanced against promoting opportunity for people within cities.”
Bradford also raised concerns about the competition home kitchen operations might bring against existing restaurants, who have been hard-hit by the pandemic.
First District Supervisor Williams had a different take.
“I think people are massively overestimating its potential competitive edge to the restaurant industry,” Williams said. “Time will tell, I could be wrong, but I think this is a slightly different niche. When I buy tamales from somebody, it doesn’t mean I go out to dinner less.”
MEHKOs are also limited in how much they can sell: Only 30 meals per day, or 60 a week are allowed, and annual gross sales must be under $50,000.
Supervisor Lavagnino echoed some of Bradford’s concern, and added that he was against the ordinance because he found it hard to believe that the businesses already operating illegally would get permitted, since the permit process takes some time and costs money.
“Outside of the fact that there are people doing it, and we should get in there and educate and regulate … if we’re not going to provide the money for enforcement, I just think this is a hope and a prayer,” Lavagnino said. “We have hundreds of people already selling tamales and these types of products, and pies and everything, and they are not going to fall under a MEHKOs ordinance.”
COOK Alliance Director Ruddock acknowledged that there are some operations out there that will never get permitted. But from his experience working with other counties that have legalized MEHKOs, there are some who will, he said. Plus, allowing home kitchen operations will encourage some folks to sell their culinary creations for the first time.
With the ordinance now passed in Santa Barbara County, that is certainly true for Santa Maria resident and chef Thompson, who has also volunteered with COOK Alliance for the past few years, leading the effort to pass MEHKOs in Santa Barbara County. She’s eager to bring her food delivery service for the elderly to life.
“I’ll probably be the first to fill in the application,” Thompson said. “I want to be able to give some of the older folks options, maybe to eat something that they know from their past, that [they] just don’t want to cook anymore or are unable to.
“It’s going to be a way to have a little business out of your home.”
Staff Writer Malea Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the pandemic winds down, Central Coast cities consider the future of pandemic-era outdoor dining
BY KASEY BUBNASH
As Californians become increasingly vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions ease, cities and business owners throughout the Central Coast are trying to figure out what to do with outdoor dining parklets. But things look different for Santa Maria.
While cities like San Luis Obispo helped businesses set up dozens of outdoor dining parklets in streetside parking spaces throughout the pandemic, Santa Maria Community Development Director Chuen Ng said the city’s streets just aren’t set up for that kind of usage.
Both of Santa Maria’s core streets, Main Street and Broadway, are owned and maintained by Caltrans, which Ng said would have had to approve any parklets or other expanded dining options at restaurants on either of those streets. So while there are a few restaurants in town with tables and chairs set up on sidewalks, Ng said there aren’t any street parklets. The rest set up dining spaces in their private parking lots, which are allowed through relaxations to the city’s zoning regulations that Santa Maria passed in May 2020 in response to COVID-19.
Now, some business owners and community members are hoping to see those rules continue indefinitely.
“I think as the pandemic winds down we’ll need to reengage with the business community and talk about whether we’ll continue those accommodations into the future or not,” Ng said.
Ng said he’s hearing mostly from business owners who want to keep the banners and temporary signs advertising their hours of operation and available services. Businesses aren’t normally allowed to display temporary banners except under specific circumstances, he said, because the city wants to encourage businesses to invest in permanent signs. That changed in response to COVID-19, too, and Ng said some businesses want it to stay that way.
There’s no specific end date for Santa Maria’s new signage or outdoor dining rules, and Ng said staff haven’t formally discussed how they’ll move forward. But he said it’s likely that some allowances from the pandemic could carry over into the future, including outdoor dining.
“We’re open to the idea because it allows for greater visibility for the businesses but also opportunities for our customers to enjoy a meal outside,” Ng said. “And we have great weather on the Central Coast, so why not take advantage of it?”
Other cities on the Central Coast are grappling with similar issues.
In Grover Beach—where roughly 22 businesses have obtained temporary use permits for expanded outdoor dining on sidewalks and in parking lots, and only two have streetside parklets—City Council expressed interest in permanently relaxing its minimum parking requirements at a meeting on May 24. But several council members said they were concerned about the proximity of street parklets to fast-moving traffic and lacking disability accessibility on sidewalks where restaurants have set up expanded dining areas.
Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said his city has lost an estimated $200,000 in parking fee revenue due to its six parklets downtown. But, more importantly, he said the loss of those parking spots also equates to more difficulties accessing the coast, which is generally considered a big no-no for cities in the coastal zone. Lewis said city staff are still researching whether permanent parklets would violate coastal zone regulations.
For San Luis Obispo, parklets helped resolve a number of pandemic-specific problems, but city officials say they also create others, including reduced parking capacity, accessibility issues, and intensified needs for already hard to find restaurant employees.
Roughly 38 businesses have parklets in street parking spots in San Luis Obispo, along with around 10 sidewalk dining spaces, and another handful of private parking lots, according to Transportation Manager Luke Schwartz.
The city also removed a lane of traffic on Higuera Street and replaced it with a bike lane, and made the last stretch of Monterey Street going into Mission Plaza a one-way street, making room for street dining outside Giuseppe’s and Finney’s. Other outdoor spaces, like Mission Plaza or private parking lots across the city, became new hubs for dining. But, Schwartz said, none of that was intended to be permanent.
“It’s been a real noticeable challenge to our parking division,” he said.
The city is missing more than 60 public parking spots due to parklet dining, Schwartz said, at an estimated cost of around $230,000 in lost parking meter revenue each year. SLO allocated about $600,000 in general and CARES Act funds to the Open SLO program, which allowed restaurants to build dining areas in public street parking spots, parking lots, on sidewalks and in alleyways. The money was spent on building parklets, modifications to Monterey Street, and public health signage. There are also additional city maintenance costs associated with outdoor dining that aren’t fully captured in that $600,000, Schwartz said.
One way the city could offset some of those costs, he said, is through the creation of an annual parklet permit fee. Businesses are already required to get Open SLO encroachment permits and insurance before building parklets, but, as of now, the permits themselves are free.
SLO City Council is slated to discuss that possibility and others at a public study session on outdoor dining on July 20, where Schwartz said members will consider making parklets and other features of the city’s pandemic response permanent fixtures. A decision has to be made before the end of this year, when SLO’s relaxed outdoor dining and parking measures are set to expire.
When the city of San Luis Obispo rolled out its Open SLO program in July of last year, Novo jumped at the chance. Samantha Welch—director of operations at Blue Mango Restaurant Management Services, the group that operates Novo, Luna Red, and a few other San Luis Obispo County restaurants—said Novo almost immediately applied for an Open SLO encroachment permit, which the city is still giving out free of charge to businesses hoping to operate outdoors due to COVID-19.
The city helped Novo install a standard parklet, which Welch said spans two street parking spaces and includes flooring, railings, and, most importantly, around eight additional tables.
“I’m grateful to the city for making the changes that they did,” Welch said, “and for us it’s been super beneficial.”
Novo put some of its own money into the parklet too, enclosing it in lattice fencing for a little extra security from passing traffic, stringing up lights, adding some potted plants, and hauling out umbrellas and propane heaters whenever necessary. But—unlike restaurants like Eureka!, which has everything from Plexiglas barriers between tables to roofing on its parklet—Welch said Novo refrained from putting too much into the potentially temporary space. Although Welch said she loves the bustling atmosphere parklets create downtown, it’s still not clear whether they’re here to stay.
“But if it were something that became a full-time thing, then we’d absolutely invest further into it,” she said.
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at email@example.com.