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Can home cooks sell their food? The state says yes. L.A. says no

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Masked and gloved, Mehri Azadi stands over the stovetop in her Glendale kitchen on a recent afternoon, her silver hair just visible under a bright orange cap. In front of her, a ruddy stew called fesenjoon bubbles away in a large pot; next to it, an herb-filled soup called ash reshteh. There is a pot of jeweled rice, the grains studded with dried fruit, orange peels and nuts, another full of rice waiting to be fluffed. The kitchen smells of citrus and sweet saffron.

Azadi, 63, lives with her husband, daughter and son-in-law, but today, she is not cooking for the family. Instead, she’s preparing meals for strangers, selling her food through an app called DishDivvy.

Azadi asked that we change her name for fear of being shut down by the health department. She is one of the dozens of cooks on DishDivvy, a Glendale company that launched after California passed a law in 2018 that created a path for home cooks to sell their food to the public.

With the public sick of doing dishes and eager for an affordable meal — and all manner of talented cooks in need of more income — it seems like a perfect moment for this type of entrepreneurial endeavor. The only problem? Individual counties must implement and permit these businesses — and Los Angeles County hasn’t yet.

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For the record:

10:57 AM, May. 14, 2020An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Asatryan had discussed the bills with the city during a seven-month period. She started her discussions in December 2017.

DishDivvy cofounder Ani Torosyan said she’s seen an eightfold rise in the number of cook applicants to the app in the last six weeks.

Mehri Azadi cooks food in her home kitchen.
Mehri Azadi cooks food in her home kitchen. She sells her food through a website and app called DishDivvy.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Most of these people applying said they lost their job at a restaurant,” Torosyan said.

In September 2018, the state passed AB 626, which legalized microenterprise home kitchen operations, allowing home cooks to sell up to 60 individual meals a week online and make up to $50,000 in sales a year.

A year later, the state passed AB 377, an accompanying bill that spelled out extra regulations, restricting such operations from the sale of oysters and the production of milk products.

The state left it up to individual counties to adopt the laws, set up inspections and provide permits.

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“The county of Los Angeles has not authorized the permitting of Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations,” a representative for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health wrote in a statement. “As such, preparing and selling/giving away food from a home kitchen is a violation of the California Retail Food Code.”

Elen Asatryan, chief policy consultant for DishDivvy, said she communicated with the county between December 2017 and December 2019 regarding the bills, then “we never heard back,” she said.

She believes the microenterprise home kitchen operations are an opportunity for anyone looking for alternative sources of income at a time when the economy is being battered by shelter-at-home restrictions.

“It’s an opportunity to create a workplace for women, for the immigrant communities and people with disabilities who can’t work eight hours a day,” Asatryan said. “Delaying it any longer just makes zero sense.”

Azadi, who moved to Los Angeles from Iran a little more than a decade ago, had never earned an income.

“This is the first real job I’ve had,” Azadi said. “I wanted to have some sort of income of my own, to be able to stand on my own two feet. And I like that I’m able to introduce food from my own culture.” Each week she sells dishes such as eggplant lasagna, fava bean stew and Persian rice cake. “To say that we are Iranian, that this is our way of cooking.”

Javaher polo, also known as jewel rice, made by Mehri Azadi to sell via DishDivvy.
Javaher polo, also known as jewel rice, made by Mehri Azadi to sell via DishDivvy.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Exploring new cuisines is one of the main reasons Jeannie Flint, 75, a retired school principal from Glendale, started using DishDivvy.

“I order things that I would never in a million years make myself, like tamales at Christmas,” Flint said. “It’s like having Mom cook you some homemade food.”

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DishDivvy provides its members with marketing resources, food photography assistance and packaging and labeling; it takes a 15% cut from each order.

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“In L.A. County we have around 50 members,” Torosyan said. “These are cooks who are going to sell their food anyway on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp. They are not going to stop making money and feeding their families with the skill set they have because the county has dragged its feet.”

DishDivvy cooks go through an application process and phone consultation. The service helps cooks get food handler cards (a safety course and exam are needed to obtain the cards, which are required for all employees involved in the preparation and storage of food) and performs on-site kitchen inspections. The inspections include checking the temperature of the refrigerator and freezer, making sure there is a food thermometer (and that the cook knows how to use it) and checking if there are separate cutting boards for meat and other items.

Part of the vetting process includes requirements for the candidate’s overall appearance, personal neatness and cleanliness. Cooks are expected to have clean clothing and aprons, to ensure that their hair is neatly pulled back and under a cap and their nails are short and well-manicured. Torosyan said she orders food from her own service regularly

Since the pandemic began, Azadi said, DishDivvy has reached out with updated safety videos and guidelines that instruct its members to take extra precautions, such as wearing masks while cooking.

Mehri Azadi stirs soup in her home kitchen in Glendale.
Mehri Azadi, a cook from DishDivvy, stirs a pot of soup in her home kitchen in Glendale.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re just three or four people in this house,” Azadi said. “The traffic in restaurants is so much higher, thousands of people come and go, you don’t know who they are, where they’ve been.”

So far, Riverside is the only county in California that has implemented AB 626 and AB 377 and launched a Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations program last year.

“We have been a county that’s welcoming businesses and we want to continue to do so; to create new business opportunities for start-ups,” Riverside County Food retail program chief Ken Chandler said.

The county has 43 approved and permitted operations. Chandler said he approved two new applications in the last month. FaceTime was used to inspect the kitchens, with the understanding that in-person inspections would be performed after shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

Foodnome is another local web-based service that connects home cooks with diners. The company started in Davis in 2017 and moved its headquarters to Riverside last year.

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Foodnome works only with cooks who have been permitted through the county program. Like DishDivvy, it provides an order platform. The service is free for home cooks to use; diners are charged a fee to order, in addition to the cost of their meals.

Between March and April, Foodnome saw a 150% increase in food sales, according to a company official.

Benz Martin, 41, has been using Foodnome to sell her Thai food since November. She and her husband, Justin, 45, applied for the Riverside home kitchen program thinking they might sell a few meals to make extra money on top of her Zumba fitness classes and personal chef business.

Benz Martin prepares food for a dinner party.
Benz Martin prepares food for a dinner party.
(Courtesy of Benz Martin. )

“We thought we might as well get the permit,” Benz said. “We got it without knowing that it would be a main source of income for us right now.”

After the closure of nonessential businesses in March, Benz, who moved to California from Bangkok in 2001, lost her job leading fitness classes and was unable to host her normal dinner parties or cooking classes.

“Right now is usually our high season and the time when we have the most business, with lots of bookings for classes and dinner parties,” Justin said.

Now, the majority of their income comes from selling Benz’s pad Thai, mango sticky rice and yellow curry through Foodnome. She prepares and sells about 60 meals a week, charging $12 to $15 per dish.

Raymond Jimenez, a 26-year-old student at UC Riverside, said since the pandemic, he’s been ordering food through Foodnome three times a week.

“I want to cook less,” Jimenez said. “In Riverside, there are limited food options, so every time something new pops up, I want to try it.”

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Jimenez said he isn’t worried about food safety and looks at Foodnome as a way of democratizing the privilege of having a personal chef.

“They are cooking a meal in the same place they cook for their family,” he said. “If it’s clean enough for their family, it’s clean enough for me.”

Other counties in California are slowly showing interest in the home kitchens program. Solano County approved its version of the program on April 7, but the city asked to defer its start until after shelter-in-place orders are lifted, said Jagjingder Sahota, the county’s environmental health manager.

In Los Angeles, it is still risky for home cooks to sell meals, app or not. Between 2016 and February 2019, the county issued more than 800 violations for selling food out of an uninspected kitchen, according to a 2019 Times story.

Azadi said she’s worried the health department will eventually shut her down, but until then, she’ll continue to sell her food.