October 15, 2021

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

Ramona Planning Group considers benefits and drawbacks to home-based restaurants

San Diego County supervisors have taken the first step toward allowing home-based restaurants, but will be taking up details about their operations and oversight in January, officials said.

At their Oct. 7 meeting, the Ramona Community Planning Group heard a presentation about the micro-enterprise home kitchen operations, or MEHKOs, by county staff.

Supervisors voted unanimously Sept. 15 to create a program that permits the sale of freshly cooked meals from family kitchens located in residential neighborhoods.

“The experience for cities with existing MEHKOS has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Supervisor Nora Vargas, who with Supervisor Joel Anderson introduced the proposal to permit them in San Diego County, at that meeting. “Adopting the MEHKOS program can lift food entrepreneurs.”

Proponents say home-based restaurants are an easy, low-cost startup business that brings economic benefits and healthy food options to communities. They can expand opportunities for entrepreneurs to earn extra cash in a cottage industry, especially people of different ethnicities, and advances the farm to table movement, which could have benefits for small farmers, they say.

Seven other municipalities in the state, including Riverside and Santa Barbara counties, have approved the home-based restaurants, said Ryan Johnson, program coordinator for the county’s Department of Environmental Health and Quality.

The home-based businesses could sell a maximum of 30 meals per day, or 60 meals throughout a week, Johnson said. Their maximum gross sales would be capped at $50,000 per year. Customers would be able to dine at a provider’s home, pick up food to go or have the food delivered by the provider, he said.

He also discussed some possible issues with regulating them. Traditional restaurants can be inspected more than one time per year but MEHKOs can only be inspected once a year, he said.

Conor McGee, planning manager for the county’s Planning and Development Services office, said he foresees several community concerns: increased traffic on public and private roads; parking of up to 30 vehicles outside a home; excessive noise; the potential for fires when cooking or grilling food; and grease or oil overwhelming sewer and septic systems.

Other concerns could arise related to their ability to sell alcohol, he said.

“The regulations as they’re written don’t give us powers to limit the hours so there could be challenges for the community as a result of this,” McGee said.

Oversight is limited because MEHKOs are exempt from zoning ordinance regulations, so they wouldn’t ordinarily be subject to review by the Ramona Community Planning Group or Ramona Design Review Board before opening, he said. However, the county could respond to noise complaints through a noise ordinance, and could apply the nuisance ordinance in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department to control issues such as an excessive number of parked cars.

Planning Group member Casey Lynch said he would encourage as many physical inspections as possible to review traffic volumes, potential threats for fires, and alcohol sales to minors.

“I see the entrepreneurial side,” Lynch said. “This is America and we’re allowed to make money and try to survive. The fact that we can get some regulation and inspection going on that’s better than nothing. It will be up to the patrons to step up and say something if they see something (amiss.)”

Several Planning Group members raised concerns with MEHKOs’ ability to serve alcohol, which could open the door to selling to minors.

“I have concerns about traffic and the ability to sell alcohol,” Planning Group member Lynn Hopewell said. “It concerns me, especially if MEHKOs are in residential areas and the roads are off the beaten path.”

Planning Group member Andrew Simmons, who owns Mamma Ramona’s restaurant and the OrangeCrate food delivery service, raised concerns about unfair competition. MEHKOs may not have to follow the same type of regulations that restaurants have to follow and their ability to serve up to 60 meals per week would siphon off some of his business, he said.

“It gives an unfair advantage to MEHKOs compared to restaurants in town,” said Simmons, noting that large delivery trucks could also impact neighborhoods. “Who knows if they would prepare 100 meals per week?”

Johnson said county staff are conducting community outreach by contacting planning groups, food banks, and coordinating public workshops with cities. Goals also include arranging educational programs for providers on food safety.

Comments from the Planning Group will be forwarded to Supervisor Anderson.

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