COVID-19 has turned the restaurant industry upside down. Is it time to rethink regulations around home food businesses
I’m hesitant to write where I got some of the best takeout since the lockdown started.
For just over $50 I got a boodle fight, a Filipino feast of grilled meats and seafood delivered to my home by the woman who cooked it.
The food came in a pizza box lined with banana leaves. There were perfectly blackened and smoky skewers of shrimp and tender pork, a whole flayed milkfish, crispy lumpia (Filipino spring rolls), plenty of garlic rice, grilled mussels and squid, crisp okra, a whole salted duck egg, dipping sauces and eggplant with the charred skin removed.
It was clear everything was cooked with care and to order. It was more than enough food for lunch as well as dinner, and it was a great alternative to the fast food chains that dominate my neighbourhood.
The thing is, I didn’t order the food through a restaurant or a delivery app. I ordered it through social media where hundreds of vendors across the GTA sell home cooked meals to users like me.
More often than not, the food is prepared in an unlicensed home kitchen. It’s a risk, but even before the pandemic countless numbers of these transactions were made every day through apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
The path to legally operating a food business from home isn’t impossible, but it can easily get confusing while navigating the rules and bylaws. With the province and the city already making it easier for restaurants to operate patios and sell booze to-go amid COVID-19, perhaps it’s also worth looking into how to make it easier for home cooks to safely sell food to other homebound Torontonians.
Jim Chan spent more than 30 years as a public health inspector with the city, during which he helped with the creation of the DineSafe program. Though he’s retired, he still gets questions from people who want to start a food business. He also teaches a food safety course for public health inspectors at Conestoga College.
“As a private citizen, the food might be good and arrived hot on time, but to put back on my public health inspector hat, there are so many regulations and requirements that wouldn’t permit home kitchens for commercial usage or providing food to the public as a commercial business,” he said.
“If those regulations are changed or the provincial government allowed home kitchens to be used during the pandemic or on a permanent basis, it could be a good idea provided that anyone running a home kitchen meets the requirements just like any restaurant or food business.”
The idea isn’t unheard of. In 2018, the State of California passed a law that would give home cooks permits to sell food from their homes as long as yearly revenue doesn’t exceed $50,000. A cap was also put on the number of meals that could be sold in a week.
The goal was to allow people — especially women, people of colour and immigrants — the chance to earn an income and get a toehold in the food industry.
The caveat is that it’s up to individual counties to opt in and issue permits, and few have done so leaving home cooks and unemployed chefs in limbo amid the pandemic. Regardless, food being prepared in homes is happening around the world.
To sell food legally from a home in Ontario, one has to follow the province’s Health Protection and Promotion Act.
But Chan says a would-be entrepreneur would have to first ensure the residence, be it a house or apartment building, is zoned by the city to allow a food premise to operate. If not, a zoning amendment would need approval, not just from the city but from neighbours as well.
The law says the food has to be made in an area separate from the living quarters, though Chan says the layout of most houses and apartments make that difficult.
He gives the example of a studio or basement apartment, or an inspector having to walk through a messy living room to get to the kitchen. A food inspector isn’t allowed to inspect the living area no matter how dirty it is because it’s out of their jurisdiction.
If the zoning is approved, the city’s public health department has to be alerted about the new business: what’s being sold, how it’s made, the layout of the food premises including the kitchen and storage areas.
Chan says he’d look for things like a separate handwashing station and a fridge that is dedicated to production (personal groceries have be stored elsewhere) — the same standards a restaurant would have to adhere to.
Once the plans are approved, an inspector would then visit and assess the kitchen in person before it receives a DineSafe sign, which would signal that it’s a commercial kitchen subject to inspections.
There are a few exceptions: a person can sell prepackaged items like bags of chips or chocolate bars, as well as “low risk” foods like hot drinks, popcorn, french fries and roasted nuts without a licensed kitchen.
This exemption was enacted this past January by the province to ease restrictions for the cottage food industry.
It’s a complicated process so Chan usually tells would-be food entrepreneurs to go to one of the dozen or so commercial kitchens in Toronto that people can rent for about $25 to $40 per hour.
The list of kitchens is available through Enterprise Toronto, the city’s resource hub for small startups.
The problem is that some may be difficult to get to without a car. Not to mention there is the appeal of cooking from home as a parent or caregiver. Demand to use the kitchens is high right now, especially with some of them being temporarily closed due to COVID-19.
Dhalia “DJ Rosegold” Palmer ran her Hungry Gyal pop up food delivery business for four months out of a residential kitchen earlier this year.
The pandemic had cancelled her travel plans as a DJ, so the avid home cook started to advertise her spicy pasta, jalapeno bacon mac and cheese burgers, and scotch bonnet wings for sale over Instagram.
She had a food handler’s certificate and her family would make deliveries spanning from Mississauga to Scarborough. Palmer says she was able to generate an income for herself during the summer, but stopped in August because she wanted to focus on her music projects.
“I can’t imagine what the overhead costs would be if I ran a restaurant even before COVID ... I think there’s an opportunity for the city and province to work it out,” she said, adding that financial barriers often prevent Black cooks from opening a restaurant.
“We’re in a time when Black people are trying to support each other, and other communities are reaching out as well. Cooking out of your home is big, and people can make money to promote our food and support Black businesses.”
For years, food writer Suresh Doss has been ordering food off Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp groups and estimates the number of vendors increased by tenfold during the pandemic.
The appeal for him is that he’s able to find more varieties of Filipino, Indian, Thai or Jamaican cooking than what’s typically available in restaurants.
“My wife found these Indonesian spring rolls that we had at a stall while travelling in Southeast Asia. We found it in Brampton,” Doss said. “The food we have can easily decimate any other city’s street food prowess because we have so many mom-and-pop foods that’s so region specific.”
Doss is often asked about the risks in ordering food not prepared in a licensed kitchen, but he says when he picks up the food, whether it’s at someone’s home or a parking lot, he’s able to chat with the cooks and build a trust.
“They know if they get someone sick, they are done, because so much of these people rely on word of mouth,” he said.
“This is a way to allow communities to get the food they want without going to a restaurant. Billions of people already eat street food and now with the pandemic, it’s time to trust people,” Doss added. “This will continue to happen regardless of legislation, so we should find a way to foster and encourage it.”
While Doss and I haven’t had any problems ordering food off social media so far, Glenford Jameson, a lawyer who specializes in Canadian food laws, says things might be different for those who are pregnant, seniors or have a compromised immune system.
The food system is meant to be traceable, he says, from the point where food is imported into a country and inspected at a facility to when it is cooked and served at a licensed food establishment. For example, if a salmonella outbreak happens, it can be traced back to the machinery at the meat plant, he says. When there’s no traceability, that poses a huge problem.
“My attitude to problems you can’t control is that you have to regulate them. Is there a way to make this safer and more transparent for everyone? We’ll benefit as consumers, and it’s a way for folks to create an income,” says Jameson.
“Ultimately food presents an enormous safety issue as well as an incredible opportunity, especially for new Canadians to build something for themselves.”