A parklet outside of Triple Rock Brewery on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

Eateries in Berkeley will get a boost in the coming months to offset the COVID-19 pandemic with a batch of grants and policy changes approved by the City Council Tuesday night.

Berkeley allocates $50,000 for outdoor dining support

To ease COVID-restricted operations in the winter months, restaurants now have access to a $50,000 outdoor dining support grant program to set up or weatherize their outdoor dining areas, funded partially by the first phase of the Berkeley Relief Fund (which was reactivated this week) and the East Bay Community Foundation.

The city will put an additional $200,000 from the East Bay Community Foundation toward a CARES grant matching program from Alameda County. That $400,000 pool will be available to all Berkeley businesses and will be awarded at random with a maximum of $5,000 until the money runs out, like the first phase of CARES grant money.

The city hasn’t yet posted information about applications for the outdoor dining support program or the second phase of the Berkeley Relief Fund.

During Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s virtual town hall Monday evening, he said several restaurant owners have expressed to him that they need heat lamps and other furnishings to host diners comfortably outside. With rising COVID-19 cases keeping indoor dining rooms closed throughout California (and even outdoor dining in regions like Los Angeles County), he said restaurants will continue to need support.

Berkeley gets closer to approving home chef operations

The City Council also approved the first reading of an ordinance approving Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO), or cooks who make and sell food from their homes, in line with two state assembly bills, 626 and 377, that decriminalized the practice in the last two years.

Berkeley has its own health department and opted-in to allow MEHKOs in 2019, but hadn’t yet created an ordinance in the municipal code to back up the process and begin permitting.

There are still several restrictions on home kitchens, such as the number of meals that can be made and sold in a day, rules to prevent “nuisance” impacts on neighborhoods and approval processes for commercial equipment.

MEHKOs are also different from “cottage” kitchens — allowed in Berkeley by permit — that are limited to baked goods, dry foods, and other products that pose low risk of contamination.

The council was going to approve the MEHKO ordinance this June, but COVID-19 response took precedence, according to staff. The pandemic has in the meantime closed down several restaurants and forced others to transition into takeout-only and outdoor dining, driving some chefs to operate home restaurants despite it not yet being legal, as MEHKOs allow business owners to sidestep steep overheads like rent and delivery fees.

According to the COOK Alliance, Berkeley is finalizing a virtual inspection system and could start issuing permits for MEHKOs early next year. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors also advanced MEHKO at a Nov. 23 meeting, and the COOK Alliance said it hopes to see a final vote within December.

Berkeley amends its delivery fee cap to 10%

A Smoke Berkeley to-go order freshly packed and ready. Photo: Pete Rosos

Cities across the country began capping fees for third-party delivery companies like Postmates and GrubHub when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, in response to restaurateurs struggling to break even on an influx of delivery orders.

Berkeley followed suit in July with its own cap of 15% on delivery fees. That, combined with 5% service fees, amounted to a 20% cap on total fees restaurants would have to pay delivery companies. But Berkeley restaurants said they were still having a difficult time turning a profit on these orders.

On Tuesday, the City Council brought the delivery cap further down to 10% and maintained the other service fees cap at 5%. Together, the total fee cap will now be 15%.

This story has been updated to include more information about the MEHKO ordinance.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...