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California 'menu police' declare that certain foods do not count as meals during the renewed coronavirus lockdown

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Restaurant owners in California have another thing to worry about when trying to keep their businesses afloat during the recent government mandated shutdowns: Whether the Alcoholic Beverage Commission in California will deem their food offerings worthy of being called a "meal" such that they will avoid legal trouble if the state comes calling.

As noted by the Daily Mail, the so-called "menu police" have decreed that certain foods like calamari, mozzarella sticks, egg rolls, cups of soup, and the like do not count as "meals" for the purpose of compliance with California's latest wave of COVID-19 regulations. Under that guidance, restaurants are permitted to remain open to serve outdoor diners, but only if the customer is served a meal.

Perhaps in an effort to avoid gaming the system, the ABC undertook to define what constitutes a "meal," but the guidance was not tremendously helpful in many respects. According to the guidance, "Meals means the usual assortment of foods commonly ordered at various hours of the day; the service of such food and victuals only as sandwiches or salads shall not be deemed a compliance with this requirement."

However, although sandwiches and salads are the only two foods explicitly mentioned by the statue empowering the agency to make these decisions, they explicitly go on to state, "while the statute excludes mere offerings of sandwiches and salad, the Department does recognize that many sandwiches and salads are substantial and can constitute legitimate meals." However, if your sandwich or salad is "pre-packaged," then it would "typically not meet this standard."

Confused yet? Don't worry, California is just getting started. In the course of attempting to define what constitutes a meal, the latest guidance focuses almost exclusively on what a meal is not, and admits as much: "It is often easier to describe what does not constitute a bona fide meal."

To that end, the department provides a lengthy but non-exhaustive list of things that do not constitute a meal, including some obvious choices like nuts and pretzels, but also some less obvious ones like calamari, chicken wings, egg rolls, and flautas.

If you are confused as to whether a food offering at your restaurant qualifies as a meal, you should know that "although multiple courses are not required to constitute a meal, in order for the patron to be served a meal there should be a sufficient quantity that it would constitute a main course in a multiple-course dining experience," which of course is not tremendously helpful given that patrons have different size appetites and restaurants have widely divergent views of the proper size of a main course for a meal.

It is not clear at this time how long these unhelpful and vague regulations will remain in place in California.

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