Mom’s apple pie, dad’s gut-burning chili, grandma’s old-country spaghetti or Uncle Bob’s barbecued ribs could be served up to more than just family if a new ordinance gets final approval, as expected, March 2 from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

Last week, supervisors unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that will allow “microenterprise home kitchen operations,” referred to by the acronym MEHKOs.

County officials believe the ordinance will help provide fresh-cooked food to seniors who no longer can or want to prepare their own meals, give residents another home-based small-business option and reduce the number of illegal home kitchens that have created public health hazards and safety threats.

“It’s like a mini-restaurant,” explained Lars Seifert, the county’s new director of Environmental Health Services Division that’s responsible for inspecting and permitting food service businesses.

Cooks will be able to prepare their specialty foods and serve them at their homes, provide them for pickup or deliver them, Seifert said.

But the number of meals they can serve will be restricted, health and safety codes must be met and the cost to obtain a permit could run upwards of $807, with a recurring annual fee of $391.

Seifert said MEHKO operators will not be allowed to provide their food as caterers or for resale, sell it from street carts or distribute it using delivery services, like DoorDash, Uber Eats or Seamless.

“It’s set up as a residential use,” he said, explaining operators will not have to obtain a land use permit nor meet some of the requirements applied to commercial food operations.

But they will have to meet state retail food requirements for preparation, packaging, handling, storage, delivery, holding temperatures, water supply, sewer and sanitary service, operator hygiene and facility equipment, Seifert said.

In addition to family or other household members, operators will be limited to one employee, and food must be prepared, cooked and served on the same day, with a maximum of 30 meals per day or 60 per week allowed, he said.

Operators will not be allowed to post signs or outdoor displays advertising the kitchen; only one MEHKO will be allowed per residence; and gross sales will be limited to $50,000 a year.

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Code enforcement officers can investigate complaints and cite operators for nuisance violations involving odor, noise, traffic and parking conflicts, and Environmental Health Services can inspect a MEHKO in response to complaints or if they suspect it’s the source of a foodborne illness outbreak.

To get started, an operator will have to submit an operations plan and menu for approval by Environmental Health Services, which also will conduct a site inspection before issuing an annual health permit.

Then, of course, there are the fees — $391 for the annual health permit plus a one-time $255 applicaton fee — in addition to the hourly rate for the staff to review the plan, which currently is $161 an hour.

Seifert said the county’s annual health fee is below the $419 median for fees charged in three of four counties used as benchmarks — Lake County, which charges $256; Solano County, which charges $447; and Riverside County, which charges $651. The fourth, Imperial County, charges an hourly rate.

Since the county chose to allow microenterprise home kitchens, they also will be allowed in all the county’s cities, whether they want them or not.

But Seifert said the cities were included in stakeholder meetings and did not submit any objections.

If the ordinance is approved on a second reading, March 9, it will add a new category to home kitchens the county already allows — cottage food operations producing low-risk foods like bread, jams and candies; and bed-and-breakfast inns and agricultural homestay operations that provide meals to guests.

Nearly a year ago, supervisors directed staff to prepare the ordinance after state legislation was passed to allow microenterprise home kitchens.

“I’m very supportive,” 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “I’m glad to see we’re doing this, and I’m glad the state’s leading the way.”

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