Legalizing baking: What's the hold-up with Washington's Cottage Law?
Several years ago a friend held a holiday sale at her house showcasing local artists, crafters, and DIYers. We gathered and set up ‘shop’ around her living room offering wares. I was there selling jars of jams, scented sugars and fermented lemons at her request – I had extra stock so figured, why not? Little did I know at the time that I was operating an illegal underground store. I just thought I was being savvy and making a few extra bucks for holiday shopping. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one selling homemade goods.
“When I decided to take cake-making from a hobby to a business, I went through my county and contacted my health department and found out it was illegal to bake cakes out of my home,” said Felicia Hill, owner of FH Cakes based out of Vancouver, Wa. A mother of two, Felicia started baking cakes at home after her one-year old was tested positive for a severe peanut allergy. Her cakes were three dimensional creations that took dietary restrictions into account. Eventually, friends and neighbors started asking for cakes and a small hobby business was born.
At the time, it was not permissible by Washington State Law to sell food made in your home kitchen. All food products intended for sale had to be assembled, cooked, baked, etc in a commercial kitchen. These commercial kitchens are built-in to any food business like a restaurant or cafe, but for a dabbler in home-cooking, commercial space is a challenge to come by. There are churches, community kitchens, and the occasional shared-use kitchen space available to burgeoning entrepreneurs, like at Ballard Kitchen – a commercial space in Seattle where small businesses can rent occasional space.
As she got busier, Hill did some investigating on exactly what she needed to do to become a legitimate and legal business. “I had permitting fees and inspections, a kitchen rental, and I had to find childcare for my two small children,” while at the commercial kitchen, she noted. Hill quickly realized the costs were prohibitive to her being in business.
She had heard of other states implementing “Cottage Industry” laws to support small-scale home producers and decided Washington State needed one, as well. In the fall of 2010, Hill met with her local Senator and discussed the possibility of introducing a similar law. At about the same time, she learned another Senator was proposing the same bill (then-Senator Rockefeller) and quickly joined him in support.
In the early stages, the bill proposed for Washington state essentially copied the details of a recently adopted cottage law in Michigan, allowing private homes the ability to produce commercial food goods while assuming licensing and compliance with all details of the law. An early advocate, Hill followed the bill through the legal process, attending the first public hearing and meeting with Governor Christine Gregoire after the Cottage Industry Law (SB5748) was signed on May 5, 2011.
While the new law allowed for home-produced goods, there was one major problem – home kitchens have to be licensed in order to operate legally, but there was no budget to pay for an inspector to visit homes and conduct inspections. Licensing fell to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and “they had to find staff and pull them from other projects for this,” added Hill. “We were supposed to see things wrap up three months after the bill was signed into law, but I kept getting the run around at WSDA,” Hill bemoaned. The law sat stalled with little movement.
There were other issues too — seemingly foreseeable, as the original law from Michigan was little-edited. The gross sales revenue was set low, at $5,000 a year, making it a challenge for anyone looking to build a viable business. Over winter, a group convened (including Hill) and made small amendments to the bill (including increasing gross sales allowable to $15k), hoping to improve upon it and correct formalities with the intent of reintroducing it this year.
At the first of the year, the expectation was a public hearing in January to finalize the details of the revision. Inspections were supposed to start this past February. Both lawmakers and the committee seemed to be on the same page, but January arrived, and nothing transpired. Then February came, and still nothing.
“We expected that ‘the rules’ were going to be in place for the new year, and every month goes by and they still haven’t figured it out,” said Kelli Samson, a mother of two small children and a pastry-maker who sells her desserts to the local community in Olympia. She also writes a food blog, freshscratch.net. She has been waiting for the official word to kick off her local baking business.
So what’s the hold up? Initially, it seemed to be a matter of public safety. “Working with our applicants, we’ve developed a common-sense approach in helping these new home-based food businesses open their doors, while protecting the public from food-borne illness,” said WSDA’s Kirk Robinson, assistant director for food safety. The process took the better part of 2011 to sort out, with the help of Hill and others on the committee.
With the new bill finally revised, the Cottage Industry Law (SB5748) is on the verge of issuing licenses to Seattle's avid home bakers. Inspections are expected to start mid-summer to allow home entrepreneurs to start selling baked goods, including breads, cakes, cookies, granola, nuts, jams and jellies, and other “low-risk” products identified by the WSDA. Home bakers will be able to sell up to $15,000 of products a year, although online sales are not allowed.
Then it becomes a matter of budget and timing. With over 250 early applicants for a license, there are a lot of home kitchens to license and monitor. Though the WSDA is the official governing body responsible for inspections, they may also hire the Public Health Department to step in and help, once inspections start mid-summer.
Hill is expecting FH Cakes to eventually help support her household operations and add to her family's bottom line. In an interesting way, fighting for this law has focused her, allowing her to get serious about the business she would like to build. “I do want to eventually have a much bigger business than the one I have now,” she admits.
Others are simply looking for a safe and protected way to explore. “I’m looking to grow the business a little, but I don’t want the joy to be sucked out of it because it feeds my creativity and allows me to write about my blog,” noted Samson.
For Hill, pushing this bill into law has almost become her full time job — one that doesn’t pay the bills. She built and runs WashingtonStateCottageFoodLaw.com, a website that has tracked the law through its various iterations and posts information, like “how to get started and what you have to do to have a legal business in the state of Washington.” She also started a Facebook account to keep in touch with other home producers.
With the new rules to the law finally amended, the Cottage Industry Law is on the verge of being officially implemented, the waiting game over. For Hill this means full steam ahead on a burgeoning baking business. For others it simply provides a new opportunity to think big but start small. In either scenario, everyone involved is hoping for a sweet ending.