Photo: Josephine/Facebook
Photo: Josephine/Facebook

In an email sent out to 2,000 East Bay customers last week, Oakland-based food startup Josephine announced that it would be pausing cooking operations in Alameda County. All non-profit partnerships, including Josephine’s partnership with Willard Middle School, have not been affected.

The decision was made after cooks working for the company were recently served with cease-and-desist orders for illegal food sales by environmental health regulators. In the email to customers, CEO Charley Wang said the regulators told the cooks that they were “committing misdemeanors, punishable by jail time.”

Wang said that Josephine “immediately informed the entire cook community of what was happening and scrambled to console and support the cooks that had been impacted.” As of May 6, Josephine had advised all cooks in Alameda County to pause operations to avoid further legal action.

“Our cooks didn’t just lose a means of income and financial stability, they were also cut off from a source of pride and empowerment,” said Wang.

Josephine was founded in late 2014 by Wang and Tal Safran as a mission-driven company that connects enterprising home cooks with hungry neighbors via an online platform. Wang has described the company as an “Etsy for food;” it provides a platform for home cooks to sell meals prepared in their homes to customers. Similar projects, like Cuchine in San Francisco and Homemade in New York, also help facilitate the sale of home-cooked meals.

The Josephine team, including founders Tal Safran (far left) and Charley Wang (second from left), at a recent cook appreciation dinner. Photo: Sika Gasinu
Members of the Josephine team, including founders Tal Safran (far left) and Charley Wang (second from left), at a cook appreciation dinner in summer 2015. Photo: Sika Gasinu

All Josephine cooks are required to follow specific safety standards in order to sell food through the company’s platform — all cooks must complete a ServSafe food handler’s course, as well as an extensive vetting interview and kitchen inspection with Josephine employees. In addition, the company provides a “Cook Knowledge Base” wiki of best business and culinary practices to all cooks.

Wang acknowledges that the Josephine safety standards are based on a system of trust, and its cooks are certainly less regulated than those producing food products under California’s Homemade Food Act, which, when passed in 2012, established rules for home-based food companies, also known as “cottage food operations.”

Besides having a stricter system of regulation, the Homemade Food Act also places tight limitations on the types of foods that can legally be prepared in a home kitchen. Essentially, the only foods that can be prepared are those that don’t rely on refrigeration to prevent spoilage of either the final product or any ingredients. Translation? Lots of snack foods, candies and jams.

Diana's green curry with chicken. Photo: Josephine/Facebook
Meals like this green curry with chicken made by Josephine cook Diana do not meet the regulations set forth by California’s Homemade Food Act. Photo: Josephine/Facebook
Meals like this green curry with chicken made by Josephine cook Diana do not meet the regulations set forth by California’s Homemade Food Act. Photo: Josephine/Facebook

Full meals of the likes produced by Josephine cooks do not meet these regulations, but the company has never been shy about acknowledging this discrepancy. Josephine employees have regularly engaged with commenters on websites like Nosh like Chowhound regarding the legality of the company’s operations and the limitations of existing legislation. The company also publishes blog posts and has actively engaged with politicians and food advocates on the subject.

As Wang put it on a recent blog post: “U.S. regulations do not allow for the exchange of food for money without commercial food facilities, business permits, and the resources required to navigate these complex processes (read: lots of spare time and thousands of dollars). These factors are extremely prohibitive for most people, especially stay-at-home parents, immigrants, and others who are not only the most disadvantaged members of the work force, but who are also the most practiced home cooks. The people who nourish our families and communities are both prohibited from benefiting from their skills, they are also actively denied the education, safety training, and pooled resources that could help them be safer, more accountable, and more successful in their cooking.”

In order to work towards changing existing legislation, Josephine has partnered with California Assemblymember Cheryl Brown to create new legislation, AB 2593, to expand the Homemade Food Act to include the legalization of a broader scope of homemade food, including hot meals. Wang hopes the legislation will pass in early 2017.

As part of a brainstorming and community-engagement effort regarding the bill, Josephine held a town hall meeting April 20 in conjunction with Christina Oatfield of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), which heavily supported the Homemade Food Act. At the meeting, Oatfield, Wang, and other members of the food community discussed the legislation, as well as the current state of opportunities for home-based food business.

Christina Oatfield speaks at Josephine's town hall meeting April 20. Photo: Josephine/Facebook
Christina Oatfield speaks at Josephine’s town hall meeting April 20. Photo: Josephine/Facebook
Christina Oatfield speaks at Josephine’s town hall meeting April 20. Photo: Josephine/Facebook

While Oatfield is supportive of changes to the legislation, she does have concerns regarding Josephine’s status as a for-profit tech company. Referring to the Uber and Lyft business models, she wrote on the SELC website: “Will similar problems arise as a consequence of the increasing popularity of sales of homemade meals through internet websites? How can we decriminalize neighborhood-based sales of homemade meals in a way that disrupts corporate control of the food system, rather than simply adds a few tech giants to the map of corporate control of the food system?”

Wang maintains that Josephine’s business model is fundamentally different from that of other startups in the “sharing economy.”

“As a team of activists and humanitarians, Josephine is not just here to serve the consumers,” he said. “We serve cooks that have been disenfranchised and excluded from professional food industry opportunities. … Our true scope of work extends beyond the success of our business, and is measured in our impact on these peoples’ lives and the food system. We believe that food is about people, and that the insidious issues affecting our food system are socio-political.”

Regulators are not opposed to seeing changes. Justin Malen, the executive director of the California Conference Directors of Environmental Health, told the SF Chronicle that he supports a move towards the legalization of home-cooked food. However, he said that food safety would be a top concern, and legislation would need to address equipment requirements like refrigerators that can maintain a temperature, as well as food handling rules for cooks and and limits on the number of meals or people served.

Despite the recent challenges, Wang insists that Josephine isn’t going anywhere. “We are working tirelessly on new ways to support our cooks and continue pushing our mission forward,” he said. “Despite the events of the past weeks, we still believe that we can achieve sustainable impact through empathy and collaboration. Today, our team is as determined as ever to represent and include diverse stakeholders in the political process while we continue to leverage our skills and energy to better support home cooks everywhere.”

Josephine will be holding a “Community Resilience Celebration” at the Kaiser rooftop gardens May 20 from 6:30-10:30 p.m. Learn more about the event here. Connect with Josephine on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...