Charity Dinners at Home: The future of the Local Food Movement
A couple in my town of Ann Arbor, Michigan started offering breakfast for money every friday morning in their home. Their goal was to promote local food producers and farmers and to create community. Local chefs joined in to cooks on a given friday and volunteers chipped in to clean up. The food was sourced locally from nearby farms as much as possible and the meals were great. Suddenly there was a place to go in town to get a fresh local tasty meal.
I was inspired by this do-it-yourself idea. I figured if we waited for the food industry to offer fresh, seasonal, locally sourced food, we'd be waiting a long time. But here was an example of people doing it from there home kitchen, with very low start up cost. I had high hopes that this idea would grow into a network of local food movement inspired independent micro eateries. Anyone could transform their kitchen into a single table local food restaurant.
Shortly after they started, however, they ran into legal trouble concerning running a "restaurant" in their home. So much for a good thing I thought, but then they got some legal help. It ends up that a person can legally serve a meal in their house. According to the law:
The relevant exemption is this, excerpted from the Michigan Food Law of 2000, Section 289.1107:
(j) “Food establishment” means an operation where food is processed, packed, canned, preserved, frozen, fabricated, stored, prepared, served, sold, or offered for sale. Food establishment includes a food processing plant, a food service establishment, and a retail grocery. Food establishment does not include any of the following:
(i) A charitable, religious, fraternal, or other nonprofit organization operating a home-prepared baked goods sale or serving only home-prepared food in connection with its meetings or as part of a fund-raising event.
In other words, if they hosted a meeting or fund raising event for a charitable, religious, fraternal or non-profit organization they could serve food cooked in their home and receive money in the form of a donation. So they needed to fit into one of those four categories. What this couple did was aline themselves with Slow Food of Huron Valley, a non-profit organization. This relationship basically made their friday morning breakfasts into a non-profit fund raising event.
The charity dinner angle was a way for local food minded cooks (or any foodie for that matter) to host meals in their home and to get reimbursed. I have attended a few private dinners in peoples home for charity. This included "secret super clubs" or "underground restaurants" as they are called. Most people who run secret supper clubs will tell you that they do not make much money doing it. They do it to express their inner cook and foodie.
How these people work with the law to allow them to cook a meal in their home and receive payment is by contacting a local charity or non-profit group who then sponsors the meal. Some or all of the proceeds after food cost goes to the charity. The charity gets a little money and buzz. The home cook gets to get their chef on. And the guests get a great meal that is usually on par in cost and quality with an upscale restaurant. Everyone wins. These meal can be a one time fundraiser event or an ongoing supper club in the case of the couple with the friday morning meals.
So if you have a urge to express your inner chef, but don't have your own restaurant, start one in your home as charity fundraiser meals. This is the law in Michigan. I cannot speak to how it works in other states.
I cooked in a monastery in North Carolina for a few years and we never saw an inspector of any kind. My boss told me it was because the monastery was considered a "private club" and not subject to licenses and inspections. No mention was made of it being a "charity" or "non-profit". I don't know the legalese behind it, never looked into it but it seemed to be a loophole you could drive a semi through. We not only cooked 3x a day for the brothers living there and their guests but also for the many festival days that a lot of outsiders attended (and there were LOTS of festival days!). BTW, it was one of the top two cleanest kitchens I've ever worked in. So it seems to me that if a person were to declare themselves a "private dining club" and charge a minimal "annual membership fee" in addition to what they would charge for a meal they might be able to get away with it in NC.
Nice idea, Brian, but the state of Michigan is one of the few (less than 10?) states in the US where anything like you've described, charity or not, is legal. In most states it's not legal (but almost always overlooked) to make school or scout troop bake sale items outside of a legal commercial kitchen.
Not that what you described doesn't happen, under the guise of a breakfast club or dinner club, but it is, for the most part illegal, and can result in serious fines from the FDA on down to the county Health Dept.