Pandemic-weary chefs, cooks enjoy serving from home

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Chef Mike Winneker prepares tacos in front of his home Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Beaten down by the pandemic, many laid-off or idle restaurant workers have pivoted to dishing out food with a taste of home. Some have found their entrepreneurial side, slinging their culinary creations from their own kitchens. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When COVID-19 shutdowns hit in March 2020, Mike Winneker, a hotel executive sous chef, found himself without work for the first time in years. Between caring for a 6-year-old son and waiting for unemployment benefits, days now spent at home in Scottsdale were stressful.

One night in June, Winneker, 33, cooked up some tacos with beef chuck and beef cheeks. Seeing what a large quantity he had, he came up with the idea of selling tacos. His first test run was a post on the NextDoor app offering brisket barbacoa tacos in his driveway. Winneker decided he would only do it if he had at least $300 in pre-sales.

He made $800 in one day.

“As of right now, I got 300 people on an email list," said Winneker, who has since been offering tacos twice a week via email and Instagram. "If I capture even a small percentage of that, it helps pay my bills.”

Beaten down by the pandemic, many laid-off or idle restaurant workers have pivoted to dishing out food with a taste of home. Some have found their entrepreneurial side, slinging culinary creations from their own kitchens.

In many cases, that can mean running up against or accommodating health regulations. These chefs and caterers say they need money and a purpose, and their plight has cast new light on an ongoing debate about regulations over the sale of home-cooked meals.

The rules around serving food for immediate consumption vary across states, making for a complex patchwork of requirements, said Martin Hahn, an attorney at Hogan Lovells, which specializes in food industry law. States generally refer to federal guidelines, but counties and cities drive permit and licensing conditions. While some states have cottage food laws allowing in-house preparation, those are for “low-risk” products like jams and breads.

“The first place I would go is call my local health department, find out whether there are any licensing requirements, permits you need to have and any restrictions on being able to operate this type of a business out of your home,” Hahn said.