When AB-626 (also known as the 2018 Homemade Food Operations Act) passed in California last year it ushered in the start of what we at The Spoon have started calling the Home Cook Economy. Now, home cooks in the Sunshine State are allowed to sell up to 60 meals a week and make up to $50,000 in annual revenue.
Yesterday the L.A. Times ran a story on the Home Food Economy in which author Frank Shyong argued that AB-626 is not, in fact, helping the immigrant and low-income cooks that it promised it would.
Shyong certainly makes some valid points — especially when it comes to immigrants and immigration officials — but I finished the piece feeling that we had some very differing views on what exactly AB-626 would look like.
First of all, Shyong seems to think that most home cooks who will take advantage of AB-626 are trying to start their own food business. To that end, he argues that the bill is too vague in its language about what constitutes a “meal,” and the 60 meals per week/ $50,000 annual revenue caps make it too difficult for entrepreneurs to actually make a living off of sales from homemade goods.
True. But the way I understood it, AB-626 was never meant to facilitate full-fledged cottage food businesses. Instead, it was intended to offer economic empowerment through supplementary income via home-cooked foods.
To confirm this I called up Ani Torosyan, founder of DishDivvy, a Glendale, CA-based company with a mobile app that connects consumers with pre-approved home cooks in their area. She also had a few issues with the L.A. Times article. “If you get anywhere close to $50,000 gross revenue… you really should be going to an industrialized kitchen,” she said.
In short, AB-626 is not for people who are looking to start a full-fledged food production business. It’s for home cooks that are looking for a little bit of extra money, or maybe want to dip their toe in the food business before they decide to ramp up production and rent out a commercial kitchen space.
Reading the piece, I was a little surprised by Shyong’s argument that more than any other party, AB-626 would end up benefiting tech giants. He predicts that the home-cook economy will quickly be dominated by tech giants like Uber who will step in to help home cooks — many of whom have no entrepreneurial experience of their own — do things like manage payments, market their product, and ensure last-mile delivery. In exchange for a percentage of their profits, of course.
I agree that tech companies will play a role in shaping the home-cooking industry — this day and age, it’s inevitable. In fact, it was a tech company who first paved the way for the home-cook economy. C.O.O.K. Alliance, a group founded by the now-defunct startup Josephine which was one of the first to give home cooks a platform from which to sell their food, was one of the primary advocates for AB-626. Even without an official marketplace, sites like Craigslist, Facebook, and even Nextdoor have served as platforms on which people can buy and sell homemade food.
But I don’t think that tech companies will destroy the heart and soul of the home-cook economy. And neither does The Spoon’s Michael Wolf.
Back in June he wrote a piece responding to a different L.A. Times article which took a similarly worried view about the opportunistic role that tech giants could play in the emerging home cook economy. Wolf argued that even if Uber or Airbnb did enter the home meal sharing market and charge 15 percent fees (which is what DishDivvy currently charges), so what? As long as legislation is in place to ensure food safety and third party fee transparency — both of which are clearly outlined in AB-626 — why not open up a new, flexible market opportunity to budding food entrepreneurs?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the home cooking marketplace is another example of how complicated it is doing business in a tech-filled world. Yes, the home meal sharing economy is a ripe target for hungry tech businesses to take advantage of people. Which is especially dangerous when the target beneficiaries would be immigrants, people of color, and women.
But in the end, it boils down to what the home cooks want. If tech giants can give them access to an instant audience, providing a marketplace that new food entrepreneurs can easily plug into, then I say bring it on. But for now, it’s smaller tech startups like DishDivvy that are paving the way in the home food sharing economy.
Sure, Big Tech players will likely enter the home-cook economy in order to grab a piece of the (homemade) pie. In fact, AirBnB has already done so: Shyong references how the company sponsored the passage of AB 626, likely because homemade food preparation is a key part of some of its “experiences.” But there’s also a future where tech companies can help grow the home cook economy without destroying it.