SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Savaiinaea family in Provo decided to share some of their favorite family and cultural comfort food with their friends and neighbors.
Under the name SaWrap, Lola and Nathan Savaiinaea began offering lumpias from their home kitchen. Lumpias are similar to an egg roll, but can be served fried or unfried, sweet or savory and are a favorite in Filipino culture.
But while Lola Savaiinaea said they have a food handler’s permits and a business license, such “microkitchen” operations aren’t currently covered by Utah law. However much trust their friends and neighbors might have in their cooking and cleanliness, there are no provisions for this budding industry of hot, fast food from a home kitchen.
But that may change.
Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, is sponsoring HB94 to help correct “the lack of inspections of home kitchens.” The bill passed the House Friday morning with a unanimous vote and will move on to the Senate for consideration.
The start of a small business
The creation of SaWrap came about from the encouragement of family and friends who’d tasted their wares.
“The popular ones in the Philippines are the pork lumpias and the banana lumpias,” Lola Savaiinaea said.
The Savaiinaeas started advertising weekly sales of their lumpias on Saturday mornings, spreading the word through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re very entrepreneurial. We’ve been wanting to start something small, but not overwhelm ourselves. This has been good because we (could) scale it according to our family schedules and stuff,” Nathan Savaiinaea said.
In Utah, entrepreneurial endeavors such as those of the Savaiinaea family have become commonplace and have led to two previous food acts.
Utah’s food laws
Regulation of Cottage Food Production Operation, passed in 2007, allowed for businesses making and selling foods that are considered not “potentially hazardous food” that are then prepackaged, labeled and sold at farmers markets and retail facilities such as grocery stores.
Travis Waller, regulatory director with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said this includes foods such as baked goods, jam, jelly and more. The agency requires, among other things, an application fee for the Cottage Food Program and a food handler’s permit.
The Home Consumption and Homemade Food Act, passed in 2018, allowed for the production and sale of foods that allowed newcomers to break onto the food scene without the need for licensing or inspections. The adage “buyer beware” is the essence of this act. This act does not allow the sale of meat products or raw dairy products.
Watkins’ bill would require businesses that sell homemade food for immediate consumption, such as SaWrap, to obtain a “microenterprise home kitchen permit” under a permitting process to be established by the Utah Department of Health.
The bill excludes food trucks, catering businesses, current cottage food operations, agritourism food establishments, care facilities, and bed and breakfasts.
“I feel if a person gets a license and allows inspections, more people will be comfortable supporting their business,” Watkins said.
It would also require health inspections annually.
Though Watkins says her bill is to address mainly the issue with hot meals or ready-to-eat food and the need to regulate potentially hazardous food, including those containing meat products, it also includes baked goods.
The only meat that cannot be sold under this bill is molluscan shellfish.
“Doing it like this affords the retail meat exemption to apply. Meat and meat products still have to be procured from a federally inspected facility,” Waller said.
SaWrap’s current business model follows Watkins’ proposed bill to the letter. The Savaiinaeas serve hot food, ranging from beef and different seafood-based lumpias, speciality rice bowls and a rolling variety of other products. They take orders on their social media accounts and offer pickup.
Nathan Savaiinaea said he didn’t like the permit requirement, calling it a lot of “oversight” from the local health departments and government.
“A lot of people I know lost their jobs, universities or businesses, and they weren’t forced to, but they used their talents and their skills to cook what they love and people love it, too. I think that’s a huge thing to consider,” he said.
“The pandemic’s still here. There’s people still suffering from job loss, still suffering with a lot of kids. I think like as an American as a Utahn, that’d be a big, big hit on our communities.”
The jobs COVID-19 cost the American community became one of Watkins’ reasons for the bill.
“I had never thought about all the chefs and cooks that have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. This bill gives them a legal way to continue their craft from home without expensive stoves, refrigerators, freezers, etc.,” she said.
The Savaiinaeas said they didn’t mind the health inspection requirement and saw the need for it.
“I think that’s fine, because I would want to buy food from someone that I know that they pass the health code,” Nathan Savaiinaea said. “I’ve been to homes that have rats, homes that have infestation of different insects and stuff; so, I think that that’s important for people to remember that ... you don’t want to get sick.”
Watkins did say that local health departments were concerned they don’t have enough staff to cover all the inspections this bill would require.
The bill states that those operating as a microenterpise home kitchen will not be able to sell to retailers or wholesale; effectively keeping it separate from the Department of Agriculture and Food’s jurisdiction of the cottage food industry.
“Typically when people call us, we help them decide which program will best suit their needs,” Waller said.
“In some cases, we advise them to start with the homemade food act and then if things are going well and they wish to expand, we will register them under cottage food and eventually as a legitimate food manufacturer,” he said.
Small business owners fear the chopping block
But the proposed regulatory change has the Savaiinaeas concerned for their friends in the industry.
“The bill would kill a lot of smaller businesses, you can say, for people ... who don’t wish to grow bigger; they just want to also share what they like to cook,” Lola Savaiinaea said.
“It’s going to cover a ton of people that didn’t even know they were under it,” Nathan Savaiinaea added.
“(They’re) probably going get fined or shut down. In this entrepreneurial environment and age, it’s very discouraging and I think it’s just a real negative thing,” he said.
He said he’d prefer if the bill was more selective and was applied to home kitchens that serve a certain number of people or are open a certain number of hours in a week and offer pathways into existing food law for the business’ growth.
During discussion of the bill in the House Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, supported the measure.
“It strikes a balance between fairness and public safety,” Thurston said. “I have a lot of people in my neighborhood who supplement the family income this way. ... As long as we ensure some basic levels of safety and protection to prevent serious diseases and some serious outbreaks, I think this is absolutely step in the right direction.”