Legal Eats Teaches Culinary Entrepreneurs the Laws on Home Businesses

Canners, bakers, caterers, and other at-home cooks who want to sell their edible goodies to the public must operate within legal boundaries.


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Sauce maker Luz Lopez

Pat Mazzera

Pat Michaels is an energy analyst planning a second career as a dessert chef. She makes a fabulous rum cake in high demand among her family and friends, and once she retires, she hopes to turn her gourmet hobby into a business.

Michaels is among 30 entrepreneurs who recently attended Legal Eats, a low-cost workshop in downtown Oakland that teaches the basics of starting a food business. Legal Eats is a collaboration among the Sustainable Economies Law Center, the East Bay Community Law Center, and Berkeley Law School’s Students for Economic & Environmental Justice. Over the course of the five-hour workshop, the audience of cooks, bakers, and a few farmers learn about legal entities, permits, zoning, and commercial leases. They soak up expert advice on grass-roots financing, commercial kitchens, and organic certification.

Michaels’ cake raises a slew of legal questions. Most rum cakes, she explains, are made with rum flavoring, but she favors her grandma’s recipe, which calls for the real thing. Michaels drizzles rum into the cake after it is baked, meaning the alcohol doesn’t cook off, and she jazzes up her white icing with rum, too. The result is delicious, and a bit intoxicating. At Legal Eats, Michaels talks with attorney Sushil Jacob and Berkeley law student Sean Howell about whether it’s legal to put alcohol into food and, if so, how much. Michaels is also wondering if she could bake her cakes in a commercial kitchen or might need to use a facility that has a liquor license. If so, would a beer and wine license suffice? One question leads to another.

“A lot of people want to start a food busi-ness, but don’t know how to do it legally,” says SELC executive director and co-founder Janelle Orsi, who developed Legal Eats. Initially called Law Slaw, the workshop appeared in the summer of 2011, when underground pop-up markets were taking hold in the East Bay. During that summer, Orsi says, there was a crackdown and the illegal markets were forced to close.

The workshop evolved into Legal Eats and has been offered twice a year since, in locations including the DeFremery Recreation Center, East Oakland’s Youth Uprising, and Impact Hub Oakland.

And as Orsi helps people fulfill personal dreams, she also holds a larger vision. “We need to stop buying food from centralized, for-profit corporations and replace it as much as possible with small, localized production,” she says.

Back at Legal Eats, as Michaels delves into the legalities of rum cake, Donald Sturman of Yummy Tummy Farms investigates insurance and learns that he may need a general liability policy on top of his homeowner’s insurance.

Luz Lopez cooks for a catering company and wants to start her own business making Mexican sauces. “It opened my eyes,” says Lopez about the workshop. She learns that she’ll need to protect her original recipes, possibly through a nondisclosure agreement, and that starting small as a sole proprietor is likely her best strategy.

Several entrepreneurs have come to find out more about California’s Homemade Food Act, legislation put into effect in January 2013. At breakout sessions, a group gathers around Jackie Greenwood of the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health for the lowdown on this law, which permits certain nonperishable foods to be prepared in a home kitchen and then sold to the public. Greenwood answers questions about which products are allowed: pickles, no; jam, yes; and red velvet cake only with a substitute for the cream cheese icing.

Orsi is eager to share her know-how and has even taught the workshop in Spanish. She also encourages law students to be part of Legal Eats. The students learn to explain legal concepts by drawing cartoons, a specialty of Orsi’s. “The cartoons get the law students to speak less like lawyers and more like people,” she says. The students have also hatched a plan to expand Legal Eats to existing food businesses, particularly corner food markets. Starting this spring, they’ll work with market owners to help bring stores into compliance, update legal documents, and add healthier foods to their offerings.

To get more answers about the laws govern-ing rum cake, Michaels takes advantage of a perk offered to Legal Eats attendees: follow-up meetings with the lawyers and students at their donation-based Legal Café. Held in East Bay locations, these weekly cafés serve up legal advice for people interested in starting local businesses, cooperatives, and other community-minded projects. Michaels naturally brings a rum cake to the meeting. We all have homework to do, she says after the gathering. The lawyers have told her that the legal limit for food in alcohol is 5 percent by weight, and Michaels plans to invest in a kitchen scale to figure out exactly how much rum is in her cake. She seems undaunted and is one step closer to her transformation from policy wonk to dessert chef.

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