Charity Dinners at Home: The rising star in the Local Food Movement
A couple in my town of Ann Arbor, Michigan started offering breakfast to the public for donations to help recuperate their costs(See Selma Post). The breakfasts were only offered one day a week on friday mornings in their home. Their goal was to promote local food producers and farmers and to create community. Local chefs joined in to cook on given Friday’s and volunteers chipped in to help serve and 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. Most food service establishments are too big, too standardize with their menu, their customers are not flexible enough, and/or the industry is not interested enough to change from their big suppliers to a network of local growers. Offering local, seasonal meals with an ever changing menu based on seasonal availably is not something a big, low end eatery like fast food or chain restaurants are set up for.
That is why I feel that there is a huge opportunity for small start ups. The local heroes in this story are an example of people doing it from their home kitchen, and with 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 say a single table local food restaurant. At least that is the idea.
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 in Michigan.
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 this couple 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/meeting.
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 homes 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 in the law in Michigan 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 their chef on, and does not go broke. And the guests get a great meal that is usually on par in cost and quality with a great restaurant. Everyone wins. These meals can be a one time fundraising event or an ongoing supper club in the case of the couple with the friday morning meals.
This may only be the case in Michigan, but there may be other states that allow the charity meals exception. I am excited about how charity or non-profit sponsored meals can create of a network of local food eateries. The possibilities are endless from a one day a week breakfast joint to a Tuesday night chicken dinner to any number of ethnic inspired theme meals. These grassroots local inspired meals can gain momentum and a following which can lead to official restaurant start ups. Which can mean that we will have a choice other than fast food and commercial food industry sourced eateries.
I do suggest that anyone interested in doing this would benefit from taking a class on food safety, and/or reviewing the booklet and taking the test to receive a food handler’s card.
So if you have an urge to express your inner chef, but don’t have your own restaurant,
I say start one in your home as a charity fundraiser meal. Shop at the farmer’s market for some fresh local produces, meats, cheeses, grains and baked good and cook up a meal. Invite your friend and get the word out, and see where it goes from there. Before we know it, we can have a network of local food eateries/meal events that provide creative, regional specialties using seasonal ingredients. It starts one table at a time.