SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - “It’s the opportunity we were waiting for," shares Diana Tapiz. "It’s the opportunity that many San Diegans are waiting for.”
For Tapiz, a Chula Vista chef, her business is now the first ever to be recognized as a home kitchen in San Diego County — and she's certainly not the last.
Tapiz has been cooking her whole life. Her favorite dish is cooking a Mexican classic called birria.
“I could taste cans in birria. I could taste artificial ingredients in one of our very traditional dishes in Mexico, and that’s when I said, 'You know, what can we do about this?'" she said.
Tapiz got to work. She used her favorite recipe and invited friends and family to taste test her meal at her home, back in 2019.
“Immediately I started taking the steps to see how to legalize it," she said.
Tapiz said when she went looking, she realized what she was doing was actually considered illegal.
So she took baby steps. She found a name for her business, called Tres Fuegos Cocina, an LLC, and saved money to be able to open a real "cocina."
But during the pandemic, word spread of her mouthwatering comfort food, and she found herself needing to find a solution to operate legally.
In December 2020, Tapiz made the decision to move to a shared commercial kitchen space.
“Not having any background in the restaurant industry to me that was a big step," she said with a smile. "I did that with so much faith and hope of that bigger picture, but immediately to find out it was very costly.”
Tapiz had to pay for rent for every minute and hour spent behind the stove. She also had to pay for childcare as she was no longer home to watch after her two boys. That plus the day to day groceries and supplies, in three months it became too much.
“I just had to make that hard decision and say you are not ready for this," she states. "You are not ready for this big step, this big commitment, you don’t have the financing.”
So Diana went back to her kitchen. It was then, that she started to brainstorm the business side of Tres Fuegos Cocina, focusing more on marketing, insurance, paperwork, etc.
Through a groupchat called "Eastlake Food to go," she learned of a new kind of kitchen called MEHKO, a Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operation.
The State of California developed this concept back in 2019, and the County of San Diego approved this year to temporarily authorize MEHKO's to operate for the next two years.
A MEHKO is a food facility where the resident stores, handles, and makes food prepared for and sold to others, all from the owners home.
“To be able to share food with so much love in it," explains Tapiz. "Whether it’s a restaurant, a food cart, or food products, whatever comes, I’m building an opportunity now.”
To become a MEHKO, you must first apply by taking and passing the SERV safe manager certification test. It is an extensive exam and course created by the National Restaurant Association, that teaches you everything you need to know about health and safety in the kitchen.
You also must pay a permit fee to the County of San Diego. Then the County will come to you home to inspect.
“They are going to make sure you have the required tools to work, they are going to make sure you learn how to make a solution to clean your dishes safely," Tapiz said. "They are going to make sure you know how to make that solution. That you have the right test kits to operate, that you are measuring your food with a thermometer."
Tres Fuegos Cocina is the first MEHKO that is recognized in San Diego County. The program is still a work in progress.
As of May, 31 applications have been submitted and only 25 of them have been granted permits.
Currently, the MEHKO's are not allowed to make more than roughly $54,000 in sales. The County regulates businesses to only serve 60 meals a week, or up to 30 meals a day.
“We can’t compete with a restaurant because we are so limited," shares Diana. "But it’s a start.”
It allows Diana and others to make lifelong dreams feasible, legitimately. Diana tells ABC 10News that she wants to expand to her backyard, and allow others to come and eat the food she makes from her kitchen, in her outdoor space. She hopes for others, it can also feel like home.
“We are going to make a difference," Diana said. "I believe this is going to revolutionize the food industry.”
She said after the permit expires in two years, the County of San Diego will re-evaluate the program and fine tune any changes based on what they observe.