Pop-up restaurant crackdown: Dining innovators have run afoul of Sacramento County health regulators

Local officials cite food safety concerns, even as pop-ups thrive elsewhere

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the October 6, 2016, issue.

Sacramento County health officials are cracking down on pop-up booth restaurants around town for the first time, telling owners that they can no longer operate inside the cafes, bars and other businesses that have regularly hosted them.

The Roaming Spoon and Purple Pig Eats were among several pop-ups contacted earlier last month by the Environmental Management Department, which, among other things, enforces health and safety regulations for restaurants in seven cities in the county. The message: Pop-ups that serve dishes inside shops that don’t carry the required permits for vending food are not allowed under California’s Retail Food Code, supervising environmental specialist Zarha Ruiz explained in an email.

The department also informed pop-ups that they exist unfairly next to food trucks and nearby brick and mortar restaurants, according to Syl Mislang, who owns vegan pop-up The Roaming Spoon.

Aaron Anderson and Allison Matney, who founded Purple Pig Eats about a year ago, weren’t happy to receive the news. They have two weddings to cater in October, imminent food festivals and, now that pop-ups are prohibited, not much else for the end of the year.

“It sucks,” Anderson said. “The pop-ups were pretty much my steady paycheck. Catering jobs are great, but they’re few and far between.”

Anderson and Matney said they’ve invested some $10,000 in the business since they’ve started.

The innovative dining trend has flourished nationally over the years, particularly in big cities like San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Pop-ups typically operate in a makeshift style, sometimes under tents set up in the patio of a business, or inside with folding tables sprawled out for guests. Their costs of operation are significantly lower compared to food trucks, carts and restaurants, and setting up shop within other businesses, like art galleries and breweries, has been where the regular money is made.

Mislang founded The Roaming Spoon, one of the first pop-ups in Sacramento, three years ago. There are at least 10 in town now, she estimated, and they are—or at least were—increasing.

But not anymore.

The county hasn’t punished any of the pop-ups yet, though various “administrative actions” can be taken if they continue, Ruiz said. For now, they’ve been “providing education” to both the pop-ups and their hosts. As it stands, pop-up owners have few options. They could use a “temporary food facility” permit, which would only allow them set up at approved community events like farmers markets.

Some also have catering permits. These allow them to prepare food at a commissary kitchen and deliver it to a public or private event, Ruiz said, but don’t allow them to act as a temporary food facility at a community event, let alone inside an establishment that doesn’t carry a retail permit, which would require the business to have specific flooring, walls and ceilings, plumbing and permanent equipment like hand washing sinks and waste fixtures.

Matney and Anderson started a Change.org petition calling on local, regional and state representatives to create a permit specifically for the pop-up model. As of October 4, the petition garnered 250 signatures.

“If we’re following all of the same guidelines to sell food [that the county has] laid out for us, then give us an option to be able to do this,” Matney said.

Ruiz said her department was aware of the petition and would continue to adhere to state laws.

Anderson and Matney plan to turn Purple Pig into a brick-and-mortar restaurant someday. It’s a shared goal among other pop-up owners, and these regulations could hinder small businesses and eliminate a cheaper way to test out new, innovative restaurants, they said.

“It’s definitely put a damper on our progress and our ability to grow,” Matney said.

Ruiz disagreed that the current codes discourage new food ventures in the city.

“Any future or current business owner is welcome to come and speak with one of our specialists to execute their vision, within the law,” Ruiz said.