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Thursday, September 23, 2021

UC Davis alumnus opens first home-based restaurant in Alameda County

Akshay Prabhu, a pioneer in the home restaurant industry, discusses legalizing home restaurants, creating his app Foodnome and opening Bao House

By LYRA FARRELL — features@theaggie.org

UC Davis alumnus Akshay Prabhu, who graduated in 2015, recently opened the first legal home restaurant in Alameda County: Bao House in Berkeley. He is also the founder of the app Foodnome, which certifies home cooks, allowing them to prepare, cook and sell their dishes to the public from their own home kitchens. As an undergraduate student at UC Davis, Prabhu studied neuroscience, but he said that he always had a passion for sharing his homemade bao buns with his community; he just did not see a cost-effective way to do so.

“I was [a neurobiology, physiology and behavior] major, and I really enjoyed it, but […] I’d always wanted to be in the food industry,” Prabhu said. “Sometimes it felt like it was harder to get into the food industry than it was to get into neuroscience for me.”

In an effort to break into the food industry, Prabhu first thought about renting out commercial space for a restaurant in Davis or elsewhere in Yolo County, but despite a small number of available spaces, the cost of rent and utilities the spaces would require made this an unrealistic aspiration for him. Prabhu decided to devise a more cost-efficient solution: a mobile food cart. During his third year at UC Davis, Prabhu was working at UC Davis’s Bike Barn, so he had access to leftover bike parts and decided to use them to build a bike-operated cart that he and a friend could sell steamed buns out of.

However, according to Prabhu, when he went to the Yolo County Health Department to get a business license, they gave him and his friend a list of requirements to meet. 

“They were like, ‘You need a three-bin sink on the cart and every time you park, employees need access to the restroom’—it was all these crazy rules,” Prabhu said.

The California Aggie contacted the Yolo County Health Department via phone for comment and they did not respond as of July 27. 

Even without the capacity to meet these expectations, Prabhu did not give up his dream of selling bao buns when he graduated from UC Davis. As an alumnus still living and working in Davis, he began to welcome community members into his garage for “pop-up dinners.” 

“I was working at the UC Davis medical center […], so I was just commuting to [Sacramento] and working half-time, and the other half-time I was running pop-up dinners,” Prabhu said. “I had this old redwood garage on Olive Drive […], and I made a [do it yourself] coffee shop and had people come by and study in the garage, and then we would have ‘pop-up dinners’ at night.”

As Pradhub’s operation gained popularity in the community, it was featured in an article, exposing it to the Yolo County Health Department, who promptly shut it down.

“The health department got wind of it and issued a cease and desist,” Prabhu said. “I [thought], ‘This health code is kind of broken. How is someone supposed to start a restaurant or get into the industry if you don’t just suddenly have $300,000 for a loan to start a brick-and-mortar?’”

Without the option of ‘pop-up dinners,’ Prabhu began to look into a law that allows cooks to operate restaurants from their own home kitchens. 

“I found out about this law, AB-626, which the COOK Alliance—a non-profit based around Oakland—was working on, and I contacted them,” Prabhu said. “I kind of turned into a lobbyist overnight.”

From that point on, Prabhu would go back and forth between his work at the medical center and the State Capitol to lobby for AB-626 to pass.

“I’d just go up and down and sometimes I’d bring some other cooks with me and we’d try to talk to people,” Prabhu said. “We held a few rallies and then we got the bill passed which was super exciting; and then I was like, ‘Oh man, maybe I can finally start doing this legally in Yolo County.’”

Since the law passed in California, Prabhu and some fellow cooks began to think about other ways that they could make an impact in the world of home restaurants. 

“[AB626] was featured nationally on [National Public Radio] and it started getting a lot of press and so we got enough traction where Riverside County passed the law,” Prabhu said. “Me and a few of my friends were sitting around and were like, ‘Hey, we passed this law […]—maybe we can build a business helping cooks start home-based restaurants,’ and that was the birth of Foodnome.”

Prabhu and his friends moved to Riverside after signing onto a sublet from UC Riverside students and began trying to build a clientele. 

“We started looking for people who wanted to start home restaurants down there, and started building a community and [tried] to figure out what the needs of home cooks are. [Ultimately], we built an app, a marketplace for them to run their businesses,” Prabhu said.

Foodnome is “the first legal marketplace for home-based restaurants,” according to its website, and has both a system for certifying home cooks to operate restaurants from their homes and a platform for ordering home-cooked meals from certified restaurants. According to Prabhu, the positive impact of Foodnome has been especially apparent to cooks affected by COVID-19.

“A lot of cooks were laid off and a lot of caterers left their work, so we have a lot of people who are former restaurateurs or line cooks or even just stay-at-home parents who have basically been cooking [through] Foodnome full-time and they’re […] able to support themselves, pay their rent and mortgage,” Prabhu said. 

In one case, a cook was awarded money to rent his own commercial space when his food became popular in his community due to Foodnome legalizing his home restaurant.

“We have one cook who has been so successful […] that his local city gave him a $25,000 grant to start a brick-and-mortar. It’s been a cool way for communities to build, for people to know their neighbors—the cooks have been making $25 to $45 an hour, and [it’s] all family-operations,” Prabhu said. 

Some families, according to Prabhu, now rely on Foodnome as a source of income.

“We have a lot of parents that have adult children with autism that have to stay at home to take care of their kids and family, so they can’t get work in a more traditional sense,” Prabhu said. “By being able to have people come to them and serve food from their house, they can make an income while still being able to take care of their family, so I think that’s pretty special.”

According to Prabhu, after his long involvement in the movement for the legalization of home-based restaurants, he doesn’t plan on re-entering the field of science.

“Realistically, I’ll probably stay in this world,” Prabhu said. “I think if I had graduated high school and I could have done anything, it probably would have been starting a restaurant, and this is kind of close to that. Helping other people start restaurants and also running my own restaurant feels ideal to me.”

As of now, Riverside, Solano and Alameda counties have signed onto AB-626. On July 1, 2021, Prabhu opened his own home restaurant, Bao House, in Berkeley, where he now lives. Bao House is currently open on Friday afternoons and offers bao buns, curry and sides.

“It was a pretty surreal experience,” Prabhu said. “It felt like a cumulation of so much time and effort and working. I grew up in the Bay Area so it’s kind of cool to be able to do this in my home county. I’m super grateful and excited for the future.”

Written by: Lyra Farrell — features@theaggie.org 

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