One of my clients asked me to help them figure out if they could legally start a restaurant in their own home in California, so I did all the research. In this article, I’m not only going to share the details but the contact information you will need to learn more about starting a home-based restaurant in your California home.
Now, Let’s start with the basics.
You can legally start a home-based restaurant in California. In 2018 CA passed an amendment to the California Health and Safety Code which established Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations or a MEHKOs. MEHKOs allows the operate a restaurant from a private residence in CA with some restrictions on size and income.
California is the only US state that currently allows 100% legal small restaurants in private homes. In other states, foodies are forced to more questionable legal home-based food businesses like Secret Supper Clubs or Meal Prep Clubs.
While some of the restrictions to California home-based restaurants are going to seem excessive, we need to give CA huge kudos for creating a law that allows foodies to legally learn food service from the comfort and security of their own home.
Next you need to know that this is relatively new law, and bureaucracies move slowly. You should expect that your local jurisdiction hasn’t yet acted to approve MEHKO’s. That’s not a show stopper, but it does mean that part of your startup process is going to be working with your local city or county council to get them to act.
Before we dig in deeper, you need to know that I am not a legal or financial professional…I’m just a home-based food business guy. I’m also not an expert on California law or food safety. The information you find here is not shared as legal or financial advice. Before you start a business you should consult with local professionals and experts.
Now lets learn more about the restrictions of opening a restaurant inside your California home.
Restrictions On Home-Based Restaurants In California
1. CA Cities & Counties Have The Final Say On Home-Based Restaurants
While the creation of Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations in California theoretically allowed for restaurants in private homes state-wide, the law also says that each local jurisdiction (either city or county) must adopt an ordinance or resolution to allow microenterprise home kitchen operations to operate in that jurisdiction.
Without that ordinance you cannot legally open a restaurant in your home in California.
At this time, some local jurisdiction in CA have adopted ordinances to allow restaurants in private homes, but not all.
Later in this article we’ll dig into how to find out if home-based restaurants are allowed in your county.
2. Local Permit Is Required
While the creation of Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations in California theoretically allowed for restaurants in private homes state-wide, the power to grant individual permits was granted to local county environmental health agencies.
Below I’m going to provide links to all of the local environmental health agencies in California.
3. MEHKO Facility Inspection Is Required
Prior to opening a home-based restaurant, you are going to have to have your home’s kitchen inspected by your local environmental health agency.
It is my understanding that his inspection isn’t nearly has strenuous as those for a regular restaurant, but I believe you’ll need to demonstrate a sanitary kitchen and practices.
Once again, below I’ll share the contact information you are going to need to schedule this pre-opening inspection.
4. CA Food Manager Certification Is Required
This is to demonstrate that you have the knowledge to safely store, prepare, and serve food. Your local environmental health agency will help you study for and take this certification test.
5. Direct To Customer Sales Only
The law clearly states that all sales must occur directly between the MEHKO and the customer. This means that you can’t use your home-based restaurant to prepare food to sell to other restaurants, grocery stores, or any other middleman.
6. Same Day Food Preparation And Serving Only
Because residential refrigeration isn’t very good at safely cooling hot foods, the MEHKO rules require that all food be prepared, cooked, and served on the same day.
7. Limits On The Number Of Meals Served.
Your CA home-based restaurant is limited to just 30 meals per day, or a total of 60 meals per week.
8. Limits On Gross Income Of Your Home-Based Restaurant
The law requires that you operate your home-based restaurant within established gross annual sales limits of $50,000. Keeping in mind the cost of living in California, this means that your home-restaurant is just a side-hustle…but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.
This is a good law that allows you to find your restaurant grove and establish a customer base before you take the leap to open a bigger restaurant or start a Meal Prep Delivery Business serving the same customer base that started as clients in your home-based restaurant.
9. Comply With Local Zoning Restrictions
While it’s state law that makes California home-based restaurants possible, it’s local jurisdiction tasked with the oversite of these small restaurants.
You must work closely with your local officials to make sure that you understand and are complying with local zoning regulations. These might include parking, number of visitors, signage, and other things I can’t imagine.
Home-Based Restaurants In California Approval Process
Under California’s Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) rules you don’t need state-level approval to open a small restaurant in your personal home. Instead, you need the approval of your local city or county.
In some CA locals, the city has made decisions about allowing home-based restaurants, and in other areas, it’s the county that has acted. In all cases, the cities and counties have worked together. Because this is always true, I suggest you contact your county environmental health agency to find out what your local rules are.
Below I’ve collected links to each of California’s Environmental Health Agency’s Websites. This list is going to save you time.
Steps To Get A California Home Restaurant Approved
1. Verify If Your Local Jurisdiction Has Approved Home-Based Restaurants
Find your local environmental health agency on the list below and contact them via email asking just one question:
“Has our local jurisdiction passed ordinances to allow Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operation (MEHKO) Home-Based Restaurants?”
Ask this question with appreciation of their time and expertise and with respect…the people who do these jobs are used to antagonism and disrespect….chose to stand out.
Keep your email concise and short. You’re not selling the idea of your business plan, you just need one question answered.
If your local jurisdiction hasn’t yet approved MEHKOs, don’t give up. Follow up with another email asking who you can talk to about getting MEHKOs approved in your city/county. Then follow through and get your city council or county council to approve MEHKOs. You can do this!
Once MEHKOs are approved in your area, go to set two.
2. Get CA Food Manager Certification
Send a follow-up email to your new contact at the local environmental health agency and tell them you plan to start working towards opening a small restaurant in your private residence and ask them another single question:
“What is the process for me getting Food Manager Certification?”
Remember, be kind, appreciative, and concise. Don’t send a long letter.
Once you get the information you need, follow through and get your certification. Not only will this clear the first hurdle of starting your restaurant, but it will give you knowledge and skills that will help you clear the next hurdle.
3. Get Your Kitchen Inspected
Once again contact your friend at the local environmental health agency and ask them just one question:
“How do I go about getting my home kitchen inspected to open my home-based restaurant?”
This is going to be the most uncomfortable part of the process.
Inviting a stranger into your home for an inspection which controls the fate of your dreams is a high-emotion moment in your life. To complicate the moment even more, you’re going to be dealing with a person who is used to facing people who are ready for confrontation.
In encourage you to approach this inspection as chill as possible and expecting that the inspector is going to find something that needs to be changed. Just expect it and be kind and respectful.
You can set the tone of this inspection with how you meet the inspector at your door. Start with something like:
“Thank you for taking the time to come talk to me! I’m so excited to start my tiny restaurant, and I know I’m going to learn a lot from you today!”
From that first moment you’ve established that you are friendly, that you know this is a tiny restaurant compared to what they normally inspect, and you’ve shown respect for their expertise.
You just might make a new friend.
4. Decide On Your Restaurant’s Theme
Keep in mind that California limits how many meals you can sell each month (60 Per Week) and how much your restaurant can make per year ($50k)…but I’m not sure that tips would be included in that total limit (that’s not legal advice).
You’ll probably want to make your restaurant a social experience. Even though your restaurant is going to be 100% legal, you should read my article about Secret Supper Clubs. Lots of the ideas in that article are going to help you create an amazing experience for your customers.
5. Name Your Restaurant
Find a name that lets people know not to expect a ‘normal’ restaurant.
Some Home-Based Restaurant Name Ideas:
- Sarah’s Table
- Sarah’s Secret Supper Club
- Supper Club – Great Food / Interesting People
- The Dinner Experience
6. Learn To Cost Your Recipes
You need to know the real cost of making the meals to be able to set your prices.
7. Setup Your Marketing
You need methods to communicate with your customers about upcoming dining events at your home restaurant. I’m not going to go into big details here, but below is a list of ideas.
You should probably start with #1 and work your way down as you have time and resources.
- A Group On Facebook
- A Business Page On Facebook
- Facebook Ads
- An Email List
- A Website
- AirBNB Experience Listing
To be clear, you can start your home restaurant with just a group on Facebook filled with family and friends, and friends of friends.
8. Set Your First Menu
I really encourage you to serve everyone the same meal. Just set the menu a week in advance and take reservations.
9. Invite Your Family & Friends
Your first dining event will be with family and friends; a friendly customer base to launch your restaurant!
10. Get Recommendations
After your first dinner, ask your family and friends to post about the experience on Facebook and invite people to your Group on Facebook.
11. Have Fun!
That’s all I got for you right now. I hope this was valuable for you and please let me know about your experience starting a restaurant in your home.
This is going to be exciting and fun!
List Of California County Environmental Health Agency Website
- Alameda County
- Alpine County
- Amador County
- City of Berkeley
- Butte County
- Calaveras County
- Colusa County
- Contra Costa County
- Del Norte County
- El Dorado County
- Fresno County
- Glenn County
- Humboldt County
- Imperial County
- Inyo County
- Kern County
- Kings County
- Lake County
- Lassen County
- City of Long Beach
- Los Angeles County
- Madera County
- Marin County
- Mariposa County
- Mendocino County
- Merced County
- Modoc County
- Mono County
- Monterey County
- Napa County
- Nevada County
- Orange County
- Pasadena City
- Placer County
- Plumas County
- Riverside County
- Sacramento County
- San Benito County
- San Bernardino County
- San Diego County
- City/County of San Francisco
- San Joaquin County
- San Luis Obispo County
- San Mateo County
- Santa Barbara County
- Santa Clara County
- Santa Cruz County
- Shasta County
- Sierra County
- Siskiyou County
- Solano County
- Sonoma County
- Stanislaus County
- Sutter County
- Tehema County
- Trinity County
- Tulare County
- Tuolumne County
- Ventura County
- Vernon City
- Yolo County
- Yuba County