It’s called the new sharing economy, collaborative consumption, the peer-to-peer marketplace.
The success of Airbnb cemented the intersection of online social networking, mobile technology, the DIY movement, and the heightened frugality of lingering economic uncertainties. If you want to borrow or rent someone’s apartment, bicycle, car, lawnmower, designer handbag, parking spot, or any number of random household goods, you can find a marketplace to do it. There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.
There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.
There are underground food markets—quasi-clandestine events that remake the traditional farmers market into a tribal gathering of would-be chefs, food entrepreneurs, and food adventurers; they are to the indie food world what a rave is to the music crowd. There are food swapping events, where no money changes hands but you bid with bags of your homemade granola for someone else’s jars of jam, home-brewed vanilla extract, or hand-rolled pasta. And there are businesses trying for a piece of the market like Feastly, that turns your home cooking and dining room table into a restaurant for the night, and Gobble, that sells and delivers your meals to local customers.
Food sharing is an idea whose time has come.
It’s recession friendly; it earns a little income for the cook, and is generally cheaper (and healthier) than store-bought or restaurant takeout. It suits our interest in alternative dining seen in the wave of food trucks and pop-up restaurants that’s been gaining steam in recent years. It also dovetails with the interest in artisan foods, providing a showcase for cooks and a platform for food entrepreneurs to build their customer base.
But is it legal?
Bear in mind that even Airbnb—which facilitates $500 million worth of transactions annually and has a company valuation of $1.3 billion—stands on shaky legal ground. If you are a renter listing your home on Airbnb you’re probably violating your lease; if you own, you’re probably breaking zoning and other laws for operating an unlicensed inn.
The standard rule in most of the U.S. is that if you bake some cookies in your kitchen, you’re welcome to share them with friends, family, and neighbors; you can bring the cookies in to work to share with coworkers; you can exchange them at swaps and potlucks. But unless your home kitchen is commercially licensed, what you typically can’t do with your cookies is sell them for money. Some local authorities turn a blind eye to blatant violations like underground markets, while others crack down on even the most benign sales, resulting in incidents like St. Cecelia’s pie-gate, when a Pennsylvania state health inspector shut down three elderly, pie-baking church ladies at a lenten fish fry.
State and local legislatures are being prodded to loosen up regulations, especially when it comes to low-risk foods like fruits jams and baked goods. More than half of the states have so-called cottage food laws governing home food production, and a few more have laws pending, but individual cities, towns, and counties can add their own layers of bureaucracy and regulations.
Before you sell, consult the state law database at The Sustainable Economies Law Center.