Friday, September 9, 2011

The Continuing Saga of Chicago and Local Food

Photo: Logan Square Kitchen

The ongoing drama that plagues tiny, local food entrepreneurs in Chicago continues.

Say you make amazing cupcakes. All of your friends tell you that you're so good, you should sell your creations. So one day you finally decide to take the plunge and start your own cupcake company (number of employees: one). You research food regulations and discover that in order to sell at anything beyond a farmers market, you have to bake in a commercial kitchen space, so you choose Logan Square Kitchen, one of two shared kitchen spaces in Chicago - the shared part means that your startup costs are going to be reasonable, since you can't afford to lease an entire building, outfit it with a proper kitchen, and get it inspected. You get your own licenses (you and the shared kitchen both need separate ones) and start baking. Sounds great, right?

It only works if the shared kitchen manages to stay open. A few days ago, a city ordinance went into effect that should have made it easier for shared kitchens to open and stay in business - then-mayor Richard Daley said that he wanted to encourage entrepreneurship and recognized that shared commercial kitchens are becoming more popular in cities across the country (I imagine he was also concerned about losing business to nearby Evanston, which has simpler regulations and is apparently friendlier to food startups). Prior to September 1, a shared kitchen needed to be inspected every time a new chef signed up to use the space, which, in some cases, meant that a space would be inspected on a weekly basis (Logan Square Kitchen was inspected a whopping 19 times in two years). By contrast, some restaurants go years between inspections. So great: the City says it wants to encourage business and the local culinary scene, the ordinance that should bring the ridiculous inspections to a normal level has gone into effect, and we should be good, yes?

Welcome to Chicago. Instead of adhering to the law itself, which seems to set reasonable requirements, the Department of Business Affairs has decided to add its own, additional regulations. Implementation: why pass on a chance to screw things up? Owner Zina Murray writes on the Logan Square Kitchen blog:
Our experience over the past two years is unfortunately remaining consistent, with a heavy hand and regulations that would be front page news if restaurants had to live with them:
  1. The business license will take the form of a picture ID badge, so owner and license must always be in Kitchen during production. If restaurants had to do this, the owner would have to be in kitchen for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day or be closed. Sick? Funeral? Your business has to shut down, even if you have employees with sanitation certification.
  2. Want to grow and have employees? they have to get their own license, $330 per pop. No other food businesses are required to license chefs individually.
  3. License must travel with you to remote locations. Let's imagine the chefs at Lollapallooza posting their business licenses out at the concert. How about every caterer that has a gig at the Chicago Cultural Center or Public Library?
  4. Both Kitchen and User must maintain records of dates and times every business used the kitchen for the last two years, and make records immediately available to any inspector. We asked for it to read "within a reasonable time" or "upon request" but no go (this requirement already exists in federal and state laws).
Does that sound reasonable to you? The Department of Business Affairs seems hell-bent on destroying local business rather than encouraging it:
Today is Logan Square Kitchen's second birthday. A year ago, there were three shared kitchen [sic] in Chicago. Today, there are two. You can bet no one else is rushing to open one. If I knew then what I know now, I would have never opened LSK.
Murray has started a Change.org petition to address the situation for local food businesses. You can also contact Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office on Facebook and encourage him to reform the City's policies. The local food community is small, but let's make our voices heard.

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