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Chula Vista City Council has been presented with a proposition allowing food facilities operated by a resident in a private home, where food is stored, handled, prepared, and served to customers. This proposition is pending approval of the County of San Diego, if adopted it will establish a new category of residential retail facilities, Microentreprise Home Kitchens (MEHKOs)

Adopted in 2018, Assembly Bill 626 and 377, otherwise known as MEHKOs, declares MEHKOs may only operate in counties where the Board of Supervisors have specifically passed an ordinance to “opt in” to the program.

According to the Department of Environmental Health Chief, Heather Buonomo, the governing body of the enforcement agency, the County of San Diego, has the authority to opt-in for the entire region. The City of Chula Vista was prepared to oppose the state’s proposition, but deliberations between council members and the lack of a draft ordinance prompted the council to hold off on a decision until they can further investigate the context of the ordinance. 

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 15 directed the Chief Administrative office to return to the board within 120 days with an ordinance authorizing MEHKOs and implementing actions. 

Chula Vista City Staff recommends that City Council formally oppose MEHKOs within San Diego County due to limited tools for enforcement, prompting the city to be at a purely responsive state. Municipalities under MEHKOs will not receive any additional funding from the state to support and enforce this ordinance.

According to Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, the city already has a problem with “rogue businesses”. Establishments will not require a business license to operate under MEHKOs. 

MEHKOs allows residents to serve 30 meals a day and 60 meals a week with a maximum $50,000 gross annual sales. Customers may dine-in, take-out or receive orders. A health permit is required prior to operating and health inspections are limited to more than one time per year and are scheduled with the operator of the MEHKO.

According to Buonomo, any complaints relating to the California Retail Food Code would go to Environmental Health and Quality. Complaints regarding zoning, land use and community impacts would go to the municipality’s local food enforcement. 

Currently there are seven jurisdictions in the state that permit the MEHKOs program while one is doing a pilot program. 

Mayor Salas said only having the ability of one scheduled health inspection per year and the lack of influence that the city has in controlling what is and is not in that ordinance was concerning. According to Buonomo, the state law cannot be changed.

Councilmember Jill Galvez strongly opposed the ordinance due to the city’s dining options. Concerns regarding how the ordinance would affect the city’s environment and infrastructure was voiced by Councilmember Galvez. “I think this is just so problematic, especially when it comes to grease traps, and the impacts on our sewer. Especially when you get into multi family housing. This is going to be problematic in so many different ways. I can understand individuals would like to find other creative ways in being entrepreneurs. I think serving meals inside of residential dwellings within a dense area such as northwest or southwest Chula Vista, or any other part of Chula Vista for that matter is very very problematic” Councilmember Galvez said.  

Mayor Salas and Councilmember John McCann raised concerns regarding competition between MEHKOs and brick and mortar businesses who could not compete, especially with the ability to have MEHKOs in very dense areas such as condominiums and apartments, and the city’s inability to limit the number of MEHKOs.

“I’ve traveled to countries where this is the way a lot of people get by where there are restaurants set up in peoples homes. But it’s set up so differently there than it is here,” Mayor Salas said. 

Council member Andrea Cardenas said that a food desert is not about the number of restaurants in a community, but the quality of food available for residents, with the availability of fresh produce, high quality ingredients. According to Councilmember Cardenas, this is an equity issue. “This program allows folks that do not have the resources to open up their own businesses to have access to open up and have their entrepreneurial spirit and access to have their own business” Councilmember Cardenas said. During the meeting, she shared her family’s experience of operating a home based kitchen to sustain themselves for three years. 

“I know that is a reality for a lot of folks. And being able to legitimize their experience and what they need to do to survive, I understand the concerns. But I think that if we continue to have this idea of all these bad operators, and do not think about the equity component of this. We cannot work under the assumption that something that can create benefit and create an equitable playing field for people, is going to be taken advantage of. If something can benefit people, that is what we should be looking at.” Councilmember Cardenas stated.

According to Councilmember Stephen Padilla, there has been limited conversations between the city and the county and that he would like the opportunity to open that door of discussion between the two before moving forward with opposition. He said he agreed with Councilmember Cardenas about the “spirit and intent” of this program.

A Chula vista baked goods provider and small business owner in Chula Vista, Maria Lopez comments on the opportunity MEHKOs could provide to small business owners. “I was a small business owner. I owned a small coffee shop and that's why I have this opinion because I had to pay for kitchens but I also had to have my permit, my license, insurance and all the other things. I have them now as an independent contractor. I will recommend that it still continues, but at an affordable limit because my revenue is not going to be as big as the revenue of a big restaurant, or as a place that is already established. I believe that small businesses should still have the opportunity” Lopez said. 

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