Column: This new California law is supposed to protect immigrant home cooks. It may help tech giants instead

Truffle dumplings at Din Tai Fung in the Americana at Brand in Glendale.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

How many dumplings equal a “meal”?

I’ve personally pondered this question because the number of dumplings I want to eat rarely corresponds with the recommended serving size.

But this question also happens to come up when you read the text of California Assembly Bill 626, a new law decriminalizing the sale of home-cooked food.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, allows home cooks to earn up to $50,000 in annual revenue and sell up to 60 “meals” a week after obtaining a permit, paying a fee and agreeing to inspections.

The disconnect I felt has a simple explanation, said Christina Oatfield, policy director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. She alleges that tech giants are the true beneficiary of AB 626 because the law contains regulations allowing for the sale of home-cooked food over the internet.

“This bill was really marketed as something that would help immigrants and people of color. The reality that I observed was that those immigrants and marginalized people weren’t at the negotiating table,” said Oatfield, who was part of the working group authoring AB 626 but left because the bill would not include specific language barring tech giants from the home-cooked food space.

AB 626 was partly written by the founders of a tech start-up., launched by Matt Jorgensen and Charley Wang in 2015, was a gig-based meal sales company that raised millions in venture capital.

Wang and Jorgensen say they were the anti-Silicon Valley start-up, focusing on offering value to the user rather than on growth and profit. For a 10% commission, they offered users a customer base, marketing tips, free takeout containers, training sessions about food safety and certification, and even food photography advice. Entrepreneurs like Joe Acanfora and Hai Lam, who sell home-cooked Thai food in Emeryville, Calif., said that signing up with enabled them to earn a healthy side income and find customers.

After Josephine was eventually forced to shut down because regulators informed the company it was violating state home-cooking laws, Jorgensen launched C.O.O.K. Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for home cooks. He and Wang were eventually approached by lawmakers to help write AB 626.

Wang and Jorgensen say that protecting immigrant home cooks from tech giants was one of their main priorities. That’s why, Jorgensen said, they fought for provisions to the law requiring cooks to directly transact with customers rather than through a third-party service such as Uber Eats. But Wang acknowledges the possibility that tech giants could create an online, gig-based platform that dominates the home-cooked food space and extracts profits from home cooks.

“If smart people aren’t working to counter those forces, that is a totally fair concern,” Wang said.

The final version of the law includes specific regulations for any web platforms that enter the home-cooked food economy — a legal pathway for the dozens of home-cooked food start-ups to enter the space. Airbnb even signed on as a sponsor to AB 626 and spent thousands to lobby on the bill’s behalf, most likely because the company is building home-cooked food into curated vacations, or “experiences” that Airbnb sells on its website.

AB 626 could give some home cooks the chance to launch a legitimate side business. Tech platforms could help cooks with payment processing, advertising, marketing or delivery — enriching Silicon Valley venture capitalists but also providing value to consumers

But for immigrants working in the informal food economy, the bill offers little. Regulators at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told me they aren’t exactly expecting a wave of applications from the beloved tamale vendors and underground dumpling entrepreneurs.

“This law is not intended to legalize unpermitted vending. It’s intended for small entrepreneurs who want to do things right and be safe,” said Veronica Petrosyan, a health specialist with the agency.

Now we’re left with the painful irony that a bill marketed as helping immigrants and people of color might actually help tech giants instead.

It’s a pity, because food regulations do affect immigrant communities. Los Angeles County has issued 843 violations for selling food from an uninspected kitchen since 2016, and the violations, though rare, have occurred disproportionately in neighborhoods with high percentages of foreign-born residents, according to a Times analysis.

Immigrant enclaves hit hardest by enforcement

County health inspectors passed out 843 violations for home cooking over a three-year period. A few cities with a high percentage of foreign-born residents – many in the San Gabriel Valley – saw a disproportionate amount of citations.

City Population Foreign-born Violations Per 10K residents
CitySouth El Monte Population21,316 Foreign-born44% Violations11 Per 10K residents5.2
CitySan Gabriel Population40,029 Foreign-born55% Violations12 Per 10K residents3.0
CitySan Fernando Population24,396 Foreign-born35% Violations7 Per 10K residents2.9
CityMonterey Park Population61,303 Foreign-born54% Violations14 Per 10K residents2.3
CityHuntington Park Population58,927 Foreign-born48% Violations12 Per 10K residents2.0
CityLa Puente Population40,010 Foreign-born40% Violations8 Per 10K residents2.0
CityGlendale Population198,653 Foreign-born54% Violations38 Per 10K residents1.9
CityWalnut Population30,044 Foreign-born50% Violations5 Per 10K residents1.7
CityCovina Population53,112 Foreign-born23% Violations8 Per 10K residents1.5
CityRosemead Population54,758 Foreign-born56% Violations8 Per 10K residents1.5
Note: Includes all cities with five or more violations.
Source: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (violations between 2016 and 2018), American Community Survey

Patricia Zhou and her mother run a home-cooked food company out of Hacienda Heights that takes in far more than $50,000 in gross revenue a year. She understands that selling the food without a permit is unlawful, she said. But so were ride-hailing services like Uber at the beginning, she said.

I thought it was an interesting comparison. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and the San Gabriel Valley both break or ignore rules to do business. But our government’s response to them is vastly different.

Airbnb violated residential zoning requirements and became a multibillion-dollar company. Meanwhile, residential motels — unofficial hostel arrangements for budget travelers that have existed in Asian communities for decades — are unanimously labeled public scourges.

Forty-seven states have passed laws making it easier for Uber to operate, but taxi companies — which in L.A. are dominated by Armenian and Iranian immigrants — have been devastated.

Who gets to break the rules, and who gets to change them? So often the answer to both questions is tech giants.

A few weeks ago, thinking that the passage of AB 626 meant that I’d have some good news for her, I paid my favorite underground dumpling maker a visit.

She perked up when I mentioned her dumplings, remembered my call and invited me in.

An immigrant from Shanghai, she’s been operating the business with her sister for 10 years, but always in fear. She recently decided to open a restaurant so she’d feel less stressed out.

But she was still afraid of authorities cracking down. Even after I offered to keep her identity anonymous, she claimed no dumplings were made on-site, though she wore a stained apron and an industrial-sized bucket of soy sauce was within view.

The law won’t cover businesses like hers. She has more than one employee, and her business generates more than $50,000 in gross sales a year.

And then there was the question of how many dumplings were in a meal (she sells thousands in a week).

We both had no idea.

Times staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.

Produced by Brian Park.

Twitter: @frankshyong