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June 10, 2014 at 10:31 am

Airbnb Expands Hospitality Business Into “Illegal” Restaurants

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According to Reuters, Airbnb is expanding further into the hospitality business. They’re piloting a new program in San Francisco that allows hosts to turn their home into a restaurant for the night. You can already find some listings for the project with options ranging from a summer of love picnic to dinner in drag to professional chefs looking for a taste of restaurant life without all the yelling.

The only problem? Richard Lee, director of food safety programs for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, told SF Weekly that this venture was “completely illegal.” But that hasn’t stopped Airbnb in the past. In fact, most landlords have laws against subletting apartments and in San Francisco it’s already illegal to rent to anyone for less than 30 days. Until now, it’s been in the city’s best interest to look the other way. Operating what the city qualifies as a “restaurant” sans health inspections, food handling licenses, or permits might be taking things too far.

While no one wants to eat unsafe food, it’s hard to see a dinner party for six people as an “illegal restaurant.” Really it’s a potluck where instead of bringing food to chip in, the Airbnb guests are bringing money to repay their host’s ingredients and time. The idea is similar to an early iteration of Kitchensurfing, a startup that brings professional chefs into your home (for a fee). Originally there were plans to rent out locations for dinner as well as chefs to go with it. Maybe someone can clear up how hiring a professional chef to come to my house is just “catering” while picking a new location qualifies as a “restaurant”? Most catered events I’ve been invited to at people’s homes have been fundraisers – events where guest theoretically paid via donation to a charity for their meal.

As Marcus Wohlsen writes for Wired

“Although [Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian] Chesky says Airbnb is committed to supporting local small businesses, that support starts to look questionable once you start creating a marketplace for unlicensed food service that competes with existing restaurants that have suffered through considerable red tape to get up and running.”

Yet I simply don’t see going to someone’s house for dinner as meeting the same need as a restaurant – even if you’ve “hired” a chef for the evening. In fact, Airbnb’s hotel model which Wohlson calls “leveraging a resource that would otherwise go to waste” (that resource being an empty room) seems more of a threat to the hotel industry – people on vacation need a bed to sleep in – than the dining model is to restaurants.

A restaurant is a private-public space: you can celebrate your recent promotion, get engaged, break up with someone, or catch up with an old friend all while sitting two feet away from another table that you never have to acknowledge. I don’t see anyone having an anniversary dinner through Airbnb’s new service. Other than the fact that a restaurant and home-cooking for a fee both offer up food – they have nothing in common. The latter is a different sort of community-building exercise. It reminds me of event dinners held by certain Brooklyn restaurants where guests order off a special prix fixe menu while getting to know a large group of strangers. You may have brought a date but these dinners are always more make-new-friends than foreplay.

This is the problem with laws that put “food for hire” under the same banner. If we have cottage food laws that let smaller food producers make their wares without the expensive oversight required of larger companies, we ought to get some cottage restaurant and hotel laws to add into the mix. Levying fines against Airbnb hosts – regardless of what service they’re giving – isn’t just a bad PR move, it goes against the entrepreneurial spirit that we should be fostering. This is especially true in cities like San Francisco or New York where the cost of living is so high that almost everyone is spinning a couple money-making plates at a time.

It’s fair to ask that people pay taxes on income collected from these ventures but becomes quickly ridiculous when people threaten that uncertified restaurants could be fined $3,000 by health inspectors (three times the permit for opening a restaurant). Even the smallest restaurant in a major city has to serve tens to hundreds of patrons a day in order to pay their employees and make rent – these Airbnb dinners mostly have a cap of seven. When a law becomes outdated, people will ignore it. I hope San Francisco and other cities can find a way to make these services safe while acknowledging the attitudes and priorities of its citizens.

-Tove K. Danovich