Akshay Prabhu used to work in an operating room with brain surgery patients. Now, he makes steamed buns from his Berkeley-based home restaurant, Bao House.
Officially, Bao House is classified as a microenterprise home kitchen operation, or MEHKO — a relatively new type of restaurant in California legalized under AB 626.
Approved in September 2018, AB 626 allowed chefs to convert their homes into eateries. Prior to the bill, MEHKOs were illegal, a reality Prabhu said impacted his day-to-day operations.
Before Bao House, there was the “Baocycle,” a mobile, pedal-powered cart Prabhu made to sell stuffed buns. Yet soon after its creation, health department officials told him the “Baocycle” had to go.
After experiencing the same problem while trying to run a pop-up restaurant, Prabhu moved to Sacramento to lobby for AB 626.
Although it was passed in 2018, the law does not mean MEHKOs are legal across the state, as counties and cities have to opt in to the program. This has led groups such as the COOK Alliance, an organization focused on normalizing home cooking, to try and convince local officials statewide to consider MEHKOs.
According to Prabhu, Riverside County was the first jurisdiction to allow home restaurants, and to date there, they have caused little to no health violations or noise complaints.
In December 2020, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to authorize home restaurants. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors followed suit in May, permitting MEHKOs throughout the rest of the county.
When explaining why home restaurants are important for upcoming chefs, Prabhu said it helps remove one of cooking’s biggest barriers to entry: money.
“You don’t go to culinary school and then suddenly have $300,000 to open up a brick and mortar restaurant,” Prabhu said. “A home restaurant allows you to understand your business without this huge barrier which causes so many restaurants to fail.”
In the resolution approved by the county board, chefs in the county can start their own MEHKOs by securing a permit that costs less than $700, while Berkeley cooks have to get a permit from the city’s health department.
To help promote residential eateries, Prabhu started Foodnome, an online platform where chefs can advertise their food, with some of his friends. Customers can use the website to place orders and chat with the people making their meals.
Bao House will host its second grand opening July 9, which has already sold out. But interested diners will have another chance to try Prabhu’s cooking July 16 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., according to Foodnome’s website.
“We want to build community. So many people don’t even know their neighbors these days,” Prabhu said. “Having people get to know their neighbors and share in a meal is a beautiful thing that can really help society as we get more and more distant.”