Cooks say outdated regulations hold back ethnic food vendors
In the kitchen of a local food bank, Dao See is up with the sun assembling hundreds of beef egg rolls.
On this day, she’s a one-woman operation.
“I usually have a team. But it’s Labor Day weekend, so I said they could go camping,” she said, as she dipped her fingers in an egg wash to seal the rolls.
See owns Minne Street Rolls, a passion project for this full-time hospital administrator. Through her cooking, See showcases the food of her people — the Lahu, an ethnic group from Thailand who don’t consider themselves Thai.
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“I have been very fortunate and blessed to be here and be able to teach other cultures about where I'm from,” she said. “I am speaking through my dishes that I make, that represents my culture.”
In a few days, these rolls will be sold at The Night Market, a summer event in Rochester aimed at promoting ethnic food and product vendors modeled after the nighttime markets commonly found in Asia.
Now in its second summer, the Night Market has become a popular event and increasingly well-oiled machine, bringing together dozens of vendors who might not otherwise have a chance to introduce the community to their foods.
Some are using the event to test-run ideas as they gather the finances they need to open a full-time restaurant.
But behind the scenes, participants and organizers said barriers to starting a small food operation are high, and are particularly difficult for immigrants who are trying to start a new business in a new country.
The process, See said, can be confusing and costly. Regulations and licensing procedures aren’t always translated into native languages. Most vendors need commercial kitchen space to cook, which can be challenging to find and expensive.
“If [the city] really wants to focus on diversity, if they really want to focus on helping small businesses, then it shouldn't be this hard for us to figure out where the commercial kitchen is,” she said. “It shouldn't be this hard.”
Side gig to full-time business
Since Tiffany Alexandria moved to Rochester five years ago, she’s been making her imprint on the city through blogging and photographing food — mostly focusing on the cuisine of Taiwan, where Alexandria is from.
In the summer of 2021, Alexandria launched the Night Market.
“Growing up in Taiwan, we would go to the night markets all the time,” she said. “It’s usually not an organized event. Vendors just show up with their little street carts and just sell one thing or two things that they're really, really, really good at making.”
But Alexandria didn’t just want to bring the traditions of her home country to Rochester, she wanted a way to help ethnic food vendors jump-start their business in a city where the food scene doesn’t reflect the vast array of people who come from all over the world to visit or work at Mayo Clinic.
She said as she worked with cooks from other countries around the city, she learned that it’s really hard for them to open a business. Rent for restaurant space is high, especially in highly trafficked areas of the city, and many cooks don’t have the accumulated income to pay for space.
“But if we have a market like this, and we can all come together and share the culture, share the food, people are more accepting of it,” she said. “They know what this is about, and they're willing to try new things. And that's how we help everybody sell more.”
The idea worked. Last summer, vendors sold out of food quickly. This summer, the Night Market shrunk to make crowds more manageable, but the final event of the summer on Sept. 10 will be huge: 60 vendors, multiple music acts — enough to shut down a main thoroughfare through town.
Alexandria said most vendors cook and sell food as a side gig, some hoping to transform it into a full-time business.
But doing so comes with a litany of logistical and financial challenges. For instance, liability insurance is required to rent commercial kitchen space, which can sometimes cost hundreds of dollars. Some vendors have dropped out of the event as a result, she said.
That’s on top of licensing fees and renting commercial kitchen space — if you can even find space to rent, she added.
“That’s fine if you're running a full-on business. But if you're running it as events, it's almost not worth it,” for the amount of money you’ll make, she said.
Regulations don’t reflect diversity in food
Other challenges are unique to the immigrant experience, said Vino Raj, who owns Square Root of Curry. Raj makes Sri Lankan food and is new to the Night Market this year.
Take fermentation, he said. Pickled products can be made at home and sold directly to consumers under the state’s cottage food producers rules — but only if they’re made a certain way.
Following those rules, Raj said, would fundamentally change the fermented products from his home country, rendering them inauthentic.
While those laws have been updated to include kimchi and kombucha, they’re still restrictive for foods from certain cultures, he said.
“You don't see lots of South Indian foods because of that law,” he said. “The laws have not caught up to other forms of cooking.”
Because the food Raj cooks involves fresh ingredients, he has to rent commercial kitchen space to prepare items for the Night Market, which comes at an additional cost — sometimes up to $50 dollars an hour.
There are plenty of commercial kitchens in the area, but they’re being used by the restaurants that own them, Raj said.
“In any other business, you do have incubators. But in the food industry, you don't,” he said. “It would be nice to have incubators that can really promote and help facilitate this growing demand of, you know, wanting to have diverse food.”
A peek inside another culture
This summer, Alexandria secured free commercial kitchen space at Channel One Food Bank in Rochester, which See and other vendors have been using regularly, saving hundreds of dollars in rental expenses.
Generally, regulations — like those that require food vendors to use commercial kitchens to cook food they’re going to sell — are there for good reason, said Jason Robinson, Business Development Director for food at the nonprofit Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.
“If you want to get into the food business, it sounds like a really low bar, a low barrier to entry,” he said. But when people start making food for people outside their families, the situation changes, he said. “Because now you're potentially liable for something that people are putting into their bodies. That means that you need to be doing it safely.”
Robinson agrees that finding and paying for commercial kitchen space depends on geography, and can be a huge challenge outside urban areas.
“What we've seen is that it's not overly difficult to get commercial kitchen space in the Twin Cities or in some of the other urban areas. Once you get outside of those urban areas, it becomes much more difficult,” he said.
Robinson’s organization, which is largely funded by the state and tasked with finding ways to promote Minnesota agricultural products, is looking into how to expand the pool of space for people who want to start food businesses, and to make them financially more accessible.
But making commercial kitchen space cheaper and more readily available eliminates just one hurdle for vendors of color, said Alexandria. More thoroughly translated regulations would also help, she said.
To promote diversity in Rochester and around the state those barriers need to be rethought, she said because food is often a way to bridge gaps between different cultures.
“Food is always the easiest way to get a peek in somebody else's culture,” said Alexandria. “We all have to eat.”