Illegal home kitchens taking a bite out of restaurant business, says Winnipeg café owner
Province says it has created an 'illegal food sales team' to investigate complaints
On a weekday afternoon, the tables inside Yafa Café are empty.
The café on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, which sells Arabic food and sweets, has felt the brunt of government-mandated lockdowns and a current provincial requirement that dine-in guests be from the same household.
But it's not just restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 that are affecting owner Rana Abdulla's bottom line.
Some customers have told her they'd rather buy their meals from home-based food sellers online.
"They tell us, 'Why should we order from here? We can order from … those home kitchens, and they give us a cheaper price,'" she said.
A quick search on Facebook Marketplace reveals plenty of food options, from a range of cuisines, and even a homemade Easter dinner for sale.
Selling food made in your home in Manitoba is illegal, with only a few exceptions in the provincial regulations. Farmers' market vendors, for example, are generally exempt — but only for certain foods, and the market itself must obtain a permit and oversee vendors to make sure they are complying with standards.
Abdulla and other restaurant owners have written to Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, asking for a crackdown on the unlicensed home-based businesses.
"It puts the public at … high risk of fire, risk of not being subject to health inspections or regulations," Abdulla said.
"We have sacrificed a lot during COVID to ensure that our customers are safe and the [workplace] is safe and complies with all the regulations, and we have unfair competition coming from home kitchens."
The province said it created a new team of health inspectors to investigate complaints about illegal home-based kitchens last December, following several complaints during the pandemic.
Hobby, not a business: seller
Dozens of letters have been sent informing sellers what they're doing is illegal, a government spokesperson said. Nine warnings have been issued, along with six tickets.
Eight operators got a health permit and relocated to commercial space to continue their business, the spokesperson said.
Shumaila Usman doesn't see the harm in cooking and selling a few meals a week. She sells Pakistani and Indian food on Facebook during some of her spare time, filling a demand for halal meals.
"It's my hobby, it's my entertainment, you can say. I feel very fresh when I cook food."
She said she was trained as a baker in college in Pakistan and disagrees she's putting customers' safety at risk by cooking in her home.
"If a person … wants to take food from you, he is satisfied, so I don't think so that there is something problematic in it."
The province said due to a large volume of work as a result of the pandemic, health inspectors are only able to follow up on food-based businesses when someone files a complaint.
"We ask that complainants provide as much information as possible, including contact information, in order to move forward quickly with the investigation and resolve the issue in a timely manner."
A city spokesperson said zoning field officers can investigate complaints sent to the city's 311 service about people operating a home-based business without a permit.
But Yafa Café's Abdulla doesn't think it should be up to restaurant owners, who pay taxes, to find and report illegal sellers who are just a click away on Facebook and Kijiji.
"The city should really be concerned because if we continue with this unfair competition, those businesses will close, and we're not the only one. I know that other restaurants are suffering."
With files from Holly Caruk