By Jordan Ferguson, Best Best & Krieger.
The holiday season is upon us — a time of sharing, camaraderie and plenty of food. In recent months, the ever-expanding reach of the sharing economy has combined all of these things as it spreads into the realm of dining, creating a new phenomenon that may provide local government officials something new to chew on — meal sharing.
The Sharing Economy
The sharing economy is built around the concept that human and physical resources—from your car, to your tool kit, to your spare bedroom—can be utilized to benefit both their owners and those who may only need the services temporarily. It is most identified with the transportation industry through companies like Uber and Lyft, and the travel industry via companies such as Airbnb and Homeaway.
With its popularity skyrocketing, the sharing economy is constantly expanding into new areas of daily life. At least four websites – EatWith, CookApp, Feastly and Meal Sharing — are taking the sharing economy in a new direction, offering users the opportunity to engage in “meal-sharing” — paying to enjoy a home-cooked meal in the form of a dinner party facilitated by the sites.
Meal sharing is growing in popularity worldwide. Tourists looking to experience a traditional home-cooked meal have turned to meal sharing to broaden their travel experience while locals use it to meet new people in their own neighborhood. Meal sharing has caught the interest of such media giants as BBC, Huffington Post and NPR, to name a few, that have devoted print space and air time to this new form of sharing. SFGate — the website sister of the San Francisco Chronicle — has reported on meal sharing in San Francisco.
Meal sharing companies aim to harness a new avenue of economic potential. However, in standard sharing economy style, they largely ignore conventional regulatory frameworks on their way to carving out a market share.
Multiple regulatory issues could face individual hosts or the websites that facilitate meal sharing transactions. These sites and meal sharing hosts functionally create pop-up restaurants that will likely violate local zoning regulations in many instances by creating commercial activity in residential zones.
Beyond that, operating a de facto restaurant likely requires individual hosts to obtain a business license and may also subject the hosts to health department regulations.
The legality of sharing sites—- which are relatively new, yet expanding — depends on local regulations, which will vary. (Click here to read a recent PublicCEO article by our firm about vacation rental sharing and how local governments are addressing the issue.)
Users of meal-sharing sites are signing up to eat food prepared in an unlicensed kitchen, by a host with no food safety training requirements, in a home that is likely zoned only for residential use. The potential problems these sites could create are clear. How various local governments will respond to the challenges of the burgeoning “meal sharing” economy remains to be seen.
For now, local governments should understand the potential issues surrounding meal sharing and the websites that promote it. As this underground market continues to grow, regulators may want to keep an eye on what is happening in their own communities and across the globe.
Jordan E. A. Ferguson is a law clerk at the law firm of Best Best & Krieger, awaiting his California Bar test results. Ferguson, a graduate of The University of Michigan, is a member of the firm’s Municipal Law practice group and can be reached at Jordan.Ferguson@BBKlaw.com.