Since his college days, Lee Thomas has been honing his grilling and barbecuing skills.
While he admits to “burning a lot of barbecue” back then, the former San Leandro City Councilman has since spent nearly three years putting his abilities to work, preparing grilled and smoked meats, vegetables, and sweet and savoury sides for local customers.
Thomas established his bespoke barbecue meal service, GrilleeQ, in 2019, by cooking private meals in clients' backyards. He converted to a pickup model during the pandemic, when consumers come to him to pick up their pre-ordered barbeque feasts.
His company is now entirely legal. In 2019, the state legislature passed Bill 626, which authorises "Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations," or "MEHKOS," and allows counties to opt in and design their own permitting and inspection systems. The new guidelines were established by Alameda County earlier this summer. While Thomas was the first to obtain a permit from the county's health department, he believes the change in the legislation was long overdue for home cooks, and is even more so now that the pandemic is underway.
The new laws, according to Thomas, will allow more people to earn money without having to invest in a restaurant or a food truck, and they will increase the amount of diverse dining alternatives available to people across the region. He's collaborating with Cook Alliance, a local advocacy group that helped pass the law, in the hopes of assisting others in getting their enterprises off the ground by clearing the regulatory and inspection barriers.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you start this business?
It's my third summer in a row. I began it after I had left the council and had been out of office since December 2018.
Is GrilleeQ a full time job for you?
This is a weekend assignment. Monday through Friday, I work as a Community School Manager for Oakland Unified School District. In addition, I am the president of the school district's administrators' union.
How did you get started?
I first started doing this by going to people's houses and barbecuing in their backyards to create a clientele until we could get this bill enacted. And then Covid arrived, and the game was suddenly finished. However, some of the same clients for whom I catered contacted me during the pandemic, when the shops were insane. ‘Hey Lee, can you cook me a dinner?' they inquired. And it was at that point that I shifted gears and began creating custom dinners for people, despite the fact that I knew it was still illegal.
Why join up with Cook Alliance? I'm fortunate to be able to work Monday through Friday and pursue this as a pastime and a passion. But I'm well aware that the way this measure was written, and the way Cook Alliance pushed to get it enacted, was intended to assist some individuals who desperately need to earn money and cook in order to survive.
This is incredibly essential to me. Many minorities, immigrants, women, and people of colour will never be able to operate their own restaurant. But this is really a stepping stone for people to become self-sufficient and generate their own money, and when you think about it, it fosters community. Cooking for your neighbours is a form of community in and of itself.SAN LEANDRO, CA – AUGUST 21: Former San Leandro City Councilman and founder of GrilleeQ, Lee Thomas, checks on an order of tri-tip grilling in his backyard as part of his home kitchen barbecue business in San Leandro, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021 Thomas’ business is one of the first to be licensed under a new law in Alameda County.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
How do you get business right now? How do customers come to you and what’s the order fulfillment process like?
People are currently visiting my website or following me on Facebook or Instagram. They'll phone and ask how much it costs to make chicken, corn, and pulled pork sandwiches, for example. You place your order with me by Wednesday or Thursday, they pay a deposit, and I go shopping for you. The cuisine is at its peak of freshness. Nothing is coming out of our freezer right now. I go shopping before or after work in the mornings. Then I've scheduled a time for them to come by and pick up the food on a Saturday or Sunday. They come to my house, where I have a side gate and their dinner waiting for them.
When you go to get your automobile fixed, they normally show you the cost of the parts first, then the labour. So that's what you'll get from me: you'll see the exact cost of your food, as well as the labour I charge you for doing this.
You have a big menu that includes poultry, pork, beef, veggies, and seafood, among other items. What’s the most popular with customers?
I make an effort to be a little different from what you could find at a typical barbecue establishment. Longanisa is on my list. I make blueberry cornbread muffins and short ribs in the Korean way. Because my wife is Burmese and Chinese, I'm working on a Burmese garlic noodle dish. The boneless skinless chicken thighs are by far one of my most popular dishes. I prepare a sauce to go with it that a lot of people really enjoy. Cali Thighs has been coined by a couple of my clients. Another thing I do a lot for people is pulled pork. It's the equivalent of a 15-hour cooking session.
That seems like a lot of pressure to ensure you turn out meals on time.
When you're smoking pulled pork for someone, you're under a lot of strain, which can be stressful. But, you know, I'm a stickler for details, and I wake up several times during the night to double-check that the temperature is correct and that I have enough fuel. There's something about the challenge and the art of being able to see the finished result that appeals to me.
The finest feeling in the world is when a consumer texts me or posts something on Facebook about how thrilled they are. That right there is the ultimate victory.SAN LEANDRO, CA – AUGUST 21: Former San Leandro City Councilman and founder of GrilleeQ, Lee Thomas, checks on an order of tri-tip grilling in his backyard as part of his home kitchen barbecue business in San Leandro, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021 Thomas’ business is one of the first to be licensed under a new law in Alameda County.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Has the pandemic had any broad impacts on your business?
The epidemic aided me since it forced me to pivot and change my business strategy to one that I had been anticipating. It compelled me to act sooner rather than later. But, as of right now, meat has gotten prohibitively pricey in the previous few weeks. And unless I'm a major barbecue business buying hundreds of pounds of meat from a distributor, the difficulty is keeping the costs down because barbecue is already costly.
For example, a few months back, I made some pulled pork sliders for a client. And she recently returned to me, wanting to make some more sliders, but my pricing had gone higher, which I had to explain was due to an increase in the price of pork. As a result, we were unable to conduct business.
Have you seen more business or less business overall during the pandemic?
Since the outbreak, I believe I've experienced an increase in business. Especially in the case of restaurants, eating outside, or people who are hesitant to enter establishments. And, to be honest, I just happen to live in a city with relatively few BBQ options.
What will be the challenges or barriers for people under the new rules for home kitchen businesses?
It always boils down to money, in my opinion. I also believe that technology will be a hindrance for some people. That's why Cook Alliance and I are strategizing about what technological components of home enterprises we can assist individuals with. Venmo, Square, Instagram, and Facebook have put them up for success on social media platforms, allowing them to market and manage their business effectively.
Another issue we find with this scheme is the $696 annual permit fee. It's quite a climb. San Mateo County has a grant programme that is linked to theirs. Another county has tiers of permit price. As a result, we'll have to work hard to secure financing to assist some Alameda County residents. Perhaps something along the lines of a "sponsor a cook" scheme. You should expect to pay between $1,500 and $2,000 in initial expenditures. Because if you say $700 for the permit, you'll have to add $150 or $160 for the food handling licence. Then there's any form of marketing you might conduct. You want to design a logo for yourself. Add in extra kitchen materials, pots, pans, to-go boxes. Those are all things you’re going to have to buy ahead of time.
Where did you pick up the skill from?
College. In college, I cooked a lot of barbecue. I went to the University of San Francisco and had several Santa Clara University buddies. As a result, we alternated between schools on weekends, hanging out with each other. We'd invite friends over and say, "Come over to our house, we're barbecuing." However, if you came to our house for a cookout, you had to bring your own whiskey and booze. But it was us who came out on top at the end of the night, because there was always whiskey and booze remaining after everyone had left. As much as I adore this project, I can't help but giggle because it was the beginning of it all.
Name: Lee Thomas
City: San Leandro
Title: Founder, GrilleeQ
Family: Wife, Ida and two daughters, ages 11 and 13
Five things to know about Lee Thomas
1. His favorite dishes on his own menu are bone-in chicken thighs and bacon-wrapped shrimp.
2. His older daughter is sick of the barbecue smell, but still enjoys the food, though she prefers no BBQ sauce. His younger daughter is very interested in the science of barbecuing and helps out with the business.
3. Thomas was born and raised in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and moved to San Leandro in 2006.
4. Though he lives just a few minutes away from the Oakland Coliseum, because of his SF upbringing, Thomas said ‘We only root for the Niners and Giants in this house. The blood lines are red and gold, black and orange.’
5. The name of his business, GrilleeQ, is a play on the words on grill, barbecue, and his fist name, Lee.