When Adams Morgan resident Jenna Huntsberger founded Whisked!, her small baking business two years ago, she was stymied by a provision in District food sales laws requiring her to use a commercial kitchen.
Between the business and food-handling licenses, permit and incorporation, Huntsberger spent several hundred dollars, and it took her about six months to find commercial kitchen space before she could start generating revenue.
Her baking contacts suggested she call churches — so she called more than 100 systematically. “I learned how to do it because that’s how we’d pitch to reporters,” the former communications associate said. But she discovered that most churches didn’t meet the commercial zoning requirements for her business, so she asked at restaurants. The going rate for renting most kitchens, she said, is about $30-$35 an hour.
She eventually stumbled upon the kitchen at Northwest restaurant 1905, where she paid $300 a month, baking about 14 hours a week. Huntsberger and an assistant normally began baking at 4 a.m. and left at about 11:30 a.m., working around the normal operating schedule of the restaurant.
(Currently, she is renting a kitchen in Rockville to produce her goods.)
Had Huntsberger waited a couple of years to open Whisked!, she may not have needed to jump through as many regulatory hoops. Last week, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, representing Ward 3, introduced the Cottage Food Act of 2013, which would allow small food producers to operate out of their homes without a license and without a commercial kitchen, as long as they bring in less than $25,000 a year in revenue. This would allow producers to sell home-cooked or home-baked goods at public venues such as farmers markets, for instance.
The act would authorize the Department of Health to define which products cottage food producers can sell, how the food can be stored and inspection requirements. Cottage food businesses would have to store the food on the premises, clearly labeled with the ingredients, net weight and a disclaimer noting it was “made by a cottage food business that is not subject to the District of Columbia’s food safety regulations,” according to the bill.
Cheh said she introduced the bill because she noticed other states — including Maryland and Virginia — already had similar laws. “Why shouldn’t people in the District be allowed to do it?” she said.
The provision could serve as a product pilot, she said. “Maybe they start by making cookies, but they can expand and go into a regular business.”
Buying uninspected food could pose a risk to consumers, said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
“If consumers are purchasing these foods directly [from the producer], consumers have the opportunity to talk to that person about whether or not they’re producing [safely]. That’s going to require a conversation, and the understanding of what it means when [the label] says it’s not subject to regulation,” he said.
But he noted that the bill could also benefit consumers.
“They’ll be able to go to a farmer’s market, and there would be more variety. They’d have an opportunity to get to know the chef.”
Despite its promise for small producers, the bill is in the early stages of the legislative process, according to the council member’s office. To pass, it would require mayoral approval, a 30-day congressional review and publication in the D.C. Register.
Some aspiring bakers are hedging their bets. D.C. residents Nadia Mitchem and Crystal Davis, who have already spent almost $1,000 on licensing applications and fees, are looking to secure commercial kitchen space for their S’mores Amore business.
“Something like this [bill] would help us lessen our costs up front, and would concentrate on making sure we have a really good product,” said Davis, who caters private events. But “we’re filing as planned and looking to secure commercial kitchen space, since we’ve already dedicated funds for these steps and we don’t want to stall our growth plans just in case.”