Marcos Buenrostro's microenterprise Mexiforno has trouble staying below the $100,000 threshold of Santa Barbara County's Home Kitchen Operations program. | Credit: Courtesy

“When I was furloughed during COVID, this seemed like a good option,” said Marcos Buenrostro. “I love to cook, and selling pizzas from home just made sense.”

Marcos Buenrostro is the owner of Mexiforno, a business specializing in crafting unique pizza combinations and king-size tacos — and he does it right from his four-burner stove at home. The Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) program, adopted in Santa Barbara County in 2021, allows people like Buenrostro to legally sell food from their home kitchens.

MEHKOs were given an additional boost by the Board of Supervisors this spring, who unanimously approved a $44,548 grant toward one-time fee waivers for individuals looking to cook and sell food from their home kitchens.

Mexiforno pizza | Courtesy

The pandemic inspired a number of creative business ventures, some of which need some safety oversight, and the establishment of MEHKOs allowed for both. Previously, home chefs looking to sell their products were required to have an industrial-sized kitchen and go through a more intense permitting process.

There are now 24 permitted MEHKOs countywide, according to Public Health. Mexiforno was the first.

For many, business has continued to boom after the pandemic frenzy — Mexiforno included. “We only work eight to 12 hours a week, like so many MEHKOs do, and we’re sold out every time,” said Buenrostro.

To appease brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, MEHKOs are required to keep their annual income below $100,000. However, some say they could easily surpass this if given the opportunity to ramp up sales.

Despite this constraint, MEHKOs continue to be rivals to traditional restaurants. Mexiforno says that social media is their strongest weapon. “Other restaurants are sold out by the content we’re creating,” said Buenrostro, who manages Mexiforno’s Instagram. “We only advertise our hours on Instagram, and we continue to sell out.”

The main purpose of the county’s grant money, said the Public Health Communications Team, is to encourage the development of home kitchen businesses in areas without a multitude of dining options, namely rural and unincorporated areas such as Cuyama, Los Alamos, and Isla Vista.

“As a chef and a foodie, it’s so hard to find gourmet food options in Guadalupe,” emphasized Buenrostro. “Some people in Santa Maria didn’t even know what burrata was when I put it on a pizza.”

Potential MEHKO owners can now apply for the necessary health permit with no fee. The grant money will go toward paying Environmental Health employees for the costs of reviewing permit applications and conducting home inspections.

Facilitating the establishment of MEHKOs in food-desert-esque areas by waiving permitting fees will “serve to increase community access to healthy food, such as for individuals who live in housing without cooking options, nearby grocery stores, or restaurants,” said Public Health.

“It’s been a big help to my income, and people are eating good food,” said Buenrostro. “Everyone’s happy.”

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