Berkeley chef opens Alameda County's first home restaurant under new law

Alameda County's first home restaurant opened its doors, or ovens so to speak, in Berkeley Thursday.   Chef Akshay Prabhu opened at 2 p.m. with backyard seating and for takeout.

The road to a legal home restaurant has been a long one for Prabhu. In 2014, while studying neuroscience at the University of California at Davis, he tried to sell steam buns from a cart on campus and was stopped by food laws.

Then he started cooking for his neighbors until a news story brought the Yolo County Health Department to his door and they closed him down. Frustrated and out of options he thought, he started a legal marketplace for homemade food called Foodnome.

"Getting shut down by the Health Department helped me understand how broken our food regulations were," Prabhu said.

"I saw the positive impact of cooking for my community firsthand. Neighbors were coming together over shared meals, community bonds were strengthened, and I was able to sustain myself.

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"I realized that the simple act of home cooking could transform our relationships to our food and each other, and I became committed to fighting for this opportunity," he said.

He finished school in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience and Thursday he opened Bao House.   "Bao are Chinese steamed buns, stuffed with a variety of fillings," Prabhu said.

"My original concept at UC Davis was to build a mobile steam bun cart called the 'Baocycle,' he said.

With Bao House he's preserving the spirit of his original concept while recognizing the experience of cooking and serving from his home.

Alameda County earlier this year opted in to a new California law that allows for home restaurants.

AB 626 was signed into law in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Since then, at least three counties in the state have opted in including Alameda, Riverside and Solano.

Similar legislation has passed in Utah and is pending in New York and Washington.

The idea is particularly salient in the current economy, with many cooks, chefs, and other restaurant workers in general out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chef Bilal Ali lost his job at the Starline Social Club in Oakland. Like Prabhu, Ali was shut down by health officials after he started a pop-up.

He thinks home restaurants are more easily opened by people than traditional restaurants because it costs less.

"The barrier for entry has always hung over us--I have to go into a massive amount of debt for something that is statistically likely to fail," Bilal said in a statement.

"These permits give people the opportunity to try things out without ruining their lives," he said. "The more restaurants and the more types of food there is, the better the world is."

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On average statewide, it costs about $250,000 to start a traditional restaurant while the total cost to start a home restaurant in Alameda County, outside of Berkeley, is about $1,000. That includes $696 for Alameda County's MEHKO permit fee, including application, review of the restaurant's standard operating procedures, and a kitchen inspection.

It also includes a food manager's course and exam, which costs anywhere from $99 to $180, depending on the course and the cost of a business license. The cost of a business license varies from city to city. It's $95 in Oakland.

Berkeley charges $546 for the MEHKO permit fee, including application, review of the restaurant's standard operating procedures, and a kitchen inspection. A business license in Berkeley is $80.

Bao House's second grand opening will be July 9 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Orders can be placed here: