Inside one of the Bay Area’s first legal home restaurants

Janelle Bitker
Sep. 15, 2021 | Updated: Sep. 17, 2021 6:17 p.m.

Lee Thomas, founder of GrilleeQ, seasons sweet yellow corn on one of his backyard grills. His home restaurant is the first of its kind to receive a permit from Alameda County’s health department.

Kristen Murakoshi/Special to The Chronicle

Saturday marked the grand opening of Lee Thomas’ first restaurant. He got up at 6 a.m. to bake blueberry corn muffins. He then moved on to barbecuing 46 pounds of tri-tip, pork butt and sausages. And he did it all barefoot, cooking out of his San Leandro home.

Thomas is the first home cook to get the green light from Alameda County to legally serve food from his house. (Berkeley, which has its own health department, granted some permits earlier.) That made the debut a cause for a major celebration, with San Leandro politicians and advocates for the home cook movement crowded around for a ribbon cutting.

A California law allowing these so-called “microenterprise home kitchen operations” went into effect in 2019, but it was up to each individual county to opt in and create its own permitting process. Thomas, a former San Leandro City Council member, worked closely alongside Oakland advocacy nonprofit Cook Alliance for the past three years to get the law passed and lobby local jurisdictions to enact it.

The issue gained mainstream attention during the pandemic, when many laid-off chefs felt they had no other option but to serve food out of their homes to make a living. Neighbors complained about some, resulting in health inspectors shutting down high-profile pop-ups like Broke Ass Cooks in Alameda County.

ee Thomas cuts a red ribbon to mark the grand opening of GrilleeQ as San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter (center) and Cook Alliance members Matt Jorgensen (left) and Peter Ruddock (right) look on.
Kristen Murakoshi/Special to The Chronicle

Now, Thomas is among eight permitted home restaurant operators in Alameda County, which has received 23 applications thus far, according to Jackie Greenwood of the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health.

On Saturday, Thomas got a taste of his dream of turning his home into a weekend restaurant. He was blasting Motown tunes while slicing smoked tri-tip in his snug kitchen, outfitted with yellow countertops, boxes of cereal and magnets all over the fridge. He tended to sweet corn and garlicky Filipino sausages over charcoal and filled serving trays with pulled pork butt, smoked over applewood chips. People loaded up paper plates with food and spread out across the backyard.

Thomas started his barbecue business, GrilleeQ, three years ago, when he first became aware of the proposed state law. With a full-time job Monday through Friday, GrilleeQ was conceived as a weekend operation allowing Thomas to share his passion for barbecue. He launched GrilleeQ similar to a caterer, taking his grills to clients’ backyards to cook there.

When the pandemic hit, he heard from clients who could no longer find meat at grocery stores and wanted to eat. So Thomas pivoted, selling customized meals for anyone who could pick them up from his house. He wants to eventually host diners for sit-down meals on a regular basis; he may even apply for an alcohol license.

The process started with submitting an application. Thomas filed his on June 25, the second possible day. He had to answer questions about how to properly handle, store and dispose of food; submit a sample menu; and review program rules, such as needing to prepare and sell food on the same day. Basically, he needed to prove he could prepare food with the same safety precautions as a traditional restaurant.

For Thomas, who had been practicing for years, this step was easy, but not all home cooks might be accustomed to making sure their chicken hits an internal temperature of 165 degrees. They might not typically keep their nails filed and unpolished, or ensure that pets stay out of the kitchen when they’re cooking.

About a month later, health inspectors arrived. They checked Thomas’ hot water pressure, refrigerator, dishwasher and bathroom to make sure everything was operational and clean. They quizzed him on basic food safety measures such as handwashing and ensured he had meat thermometers. The whole ordeal went remarkably smoothly, Thomas said.

“I went to bed at 2 a.m. just to make sure my kitchen was in the most pristine condition,” he said. “I was down to the baseboards. I just didn’t know what to expect.”

Friends of Lee Thomas serve themselves plates of barbecue at GrilleeQ’s grand-opening celebration in San Leandro. Kristen Murakoshi/Special to The Chronicle

Thomas immediately received paperwork allowing him to legally open his home restaurant, although his official permit still hasn’t come in the mail. Altogether, Thomas estimates the startup cost for launching a home restaurant in Alameda County is about $1,500. The permit costs $696. Operators also need to complete food manager certification, about $150 with online training, and spend money on ingredients, to-go boxes and potentially other kitchen tools.

It’s that speed and fairly low startup cost that prompted Alameda County to opt in to the law in the first place.

During committee meetings over the past two years, supervisors noted there was already a robust underground food economy in cities like Oakland, where you can easily find vendors selling tamales out of home garages. Advocates say legalizing these operations allows people who don’t have many financial resources to launch a business at a reasonable cost, particularly compared to the hundreds of thousands needed for a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. According to Cook Alliance, 84% of cooks in the informal food economy are women and 48% are of African, Hispanic or multiracial descent.

While some Bay Area residents have expressed concerns about living near a home restaurant, Thomas’ neighbor Jane Wilcox said she doesn’t see any downside.

“I have to laugh when people get up in arms about parking,” she said, comparing her current suburban neighborhood to previously living in San Francisco. “I’m excited to see more people doing it to have more options for eating.”

Lee Thomas, owner of GrilleeQ, slices tri-tip in his kitchen. Thomas is the first home cook in Alameda County to earn permits for a microenterprise home kitchen operation (MEHKO). San Leandro, Calif. Sep. 11, 2021 Kristen Murakoshi / Special to The Chronicle

Thomas plans to keep his full-time job in the Oakland Unified School District, and make GrilleeQ a regular weekend restaurant remains complicated. He’s still taking frequent preorders for takeout and has a few catering gigs that require travel in the coming months — and he’s just one person.

But now that he’s seen what it takes to get permitted, he wants to help other home cooks navigate the process and potentially fundraise to sponsor would-be applicants who can’t afford it.

“I’m fortunate to do this as my passion for barbecue, but I also realize this bill has the possibility to make great change for people who are struggling,” he said. “I’m going to continue working for Cook Alliance to help people of color, women and minorities get their foot in the door without having to live in fear.”

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @janellebitker