Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Cooks' complaint

They have recipes that are potential money-makers, but say they're stymied in setting up businesses by the city's unpalatable regulations.

Sandy Taylor's friends rave about her sticky buns.

"They tell me they're so good you should sell these," says Taylor, 60, a retired lab technician who lives in West Philadelphia.

She spent 10 years perfecting the recipe, using her mother's instructions for the dough. "You should sell these," Taylor hears again and again.

And she would, too, if she could find a way to do it legally.

The city Department of Public Health requires that food intended for sale be made in a kitchen the department can inspect periodically.

Taylor is not the only person out there who has a tasty potential money-maker. Most are bakers like Christina Butler of South Philadelphia, who wants to sell her "baby cakes," a combination cake and doughnut that resembles a mini bundt cake. Others make spice mixes, pestos, or jams.

A business like Taylor's, if successful, could employ other bakers, as well as companies that make the raw ingredients she needs, people who design and print labels and boxes, marketing experts, packers, and shippers.

Indeed, Reuben Canada of South Philadelphia, who makes a ginger-green-tea beverage called Jin-Ja, says he will probably hire as many as 20 workers for his small business this year.

But many craft food producers complain that the city has not been friendly to their small start-ups. In fact, entrepreneurs like Taylor need approvals from at least three different city departments - public health, zoning, licenses and inspections - and those departments don't even have a category for this kind of business.

"So how am I to know which rules and regulations apply to me?" Taylor asks.

She says she's found it impossible to find rental space in a suitable commercial kitchen.

"Nobody is asking for a free ride from the city," says Eli Massar, who tried to operate a kitchen rental on South Street for food start-ups like Taylor's.

He had no shortage of customers (in fact, he had to turn Reuben Canada away). But after only 16 months in business, Massar says, he shut down his Philly Kitchen Share out of frustration. He felt defeated by multiple inspections, a plethora of confusing forms, and what Massar says is "an antagonistic approach."

Taylor wants to go the legal route, but in the absence of kitchen rentals, an unknown number of food producers operate under the radar - in home kitchens that the city health department doesn't know about and cannot inspect for safety.

Solutions are in the works, but whether they will go far enough to meet the demand is yet to be seen.

One solution is at the Center for Culinary Enterprises, a food-business incubator that has already counseled about 40 start-up food producers (among them Taylor and Butler) but has not yet been able to offer rental space. It is renovating a former West Philadelphia grocery store to serve as a retail shop, an on-site eatery, and three much-needed kitchen rental spaces. The operation is slated to open in September.

Another solution is a partnership between the city Commerce Department and the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. That idea, still in the discussion phase, is to make some church kitchens available for rent by craft food makers and chart an easier path through the city's approval and licensing bureaucracy.

"Interest in food is just exploding in Philadelphia," says Jim Flaherty of the city Commerce Department, who is charged with bringing business into the city. "Yet there's a complete lack of kitchen spaces like this."

According to Steve Horton, a business adviser at the Center for Culinary Enterprise and a craft food maker himself, this kind of venture "is an affordable way to launch a business without getting in too deep financially.

As a co-owner of Fifth of a Farm, Horton makes jams he sells at farmer's markets. He can't sell to stores, though, because that would be considered selling "wholesale" by one city regulation. And according to another regulation, the church kitchen Horton uses is not in an area zoned for wholesale. That makes no sense, he says, because he wouldn't actually be selling from that kitchen.

Horton rents space at Greensgrow Farm's kitchen share in St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Kensington.

Mary Seton Corboy, who heads the multifaceted nonprofit community farming project, says Greensgrow launched the kitchen rental program 21/2 years ago, after making $35,000 in renovations to the church kitchen.

Initially, Greensgrow wanted space to prepare food from its own gardens: pestos, eggplant dip, salsas, and soon-to-debut cheese spread. The renters came later, and with them a host of unanticipated concerns.

Some walked away without paying their rent. Others didn't clean up after themselves. But the biggest obstacle to renting out space, Corboy says, was the city bureaucracy.

"The city doesn't have a category for these kitchens," Corboy says, echoing the lament of Taylor and so many others. "The forms we had to fill out didn't seem to fit."

"Luckily, we knew enough people in government who helped us."

Last fall, Greensgrow put a moratorium on new rental customers, turning away both Taylor and Butler, to give its board of directors time to assess the project.

Meanwhile, a North Philadelphia community development corporation called Allegheny West is renovating the former Pierce Elementary Annex at 22d and Cambria Streets as a rental kitchen and an eatery.

Palak Raval-Nelson, who runs the city health department section responsible for food safety, says she's heard the complaints about her office.

She says her department has to approve the project plans of each new tenant in a rental kitchen and inspect that facility for that tenant's use - even if the kitchen was just inspected within the last 24 hours for another tenant.

In addition, Raval-Nelson says she aims to reinspect every kitchen every time a food producer, a food-truck vendor, or a restaurant chef makes menu changes. That, says Massar of the former Philly Kitchen Share, is hard to explain at a time when so many restaurant kitchens change their menus daily to make the best use of seasonally available ingredients.

And chefs who cure their own meats or make their own chocolates off the premises of their restaurant are already rumbling about the health department's demands.

Still, Raval-Nelson insists she wants to make her division user-friendly. She initiated walk-in hours at the division's offices at 321 University Ave. so craft food makers can get questions answered in person rather than deal with phone mazes.

"And I'd love to develop a tricolor, easy-to-read brochure explaining how to start a food business in Philadelphia," Raval-Nelson says. But she doesn't even know if she can get that done. "I don't know who would pay for it."

Flaherty acknowledges the obstacles and says he is focused on removing them. He says the Mayor's Office of Sustainability is working with the Commerce Department to make the city more business-friendly for craft food makers like Taylor.

"We want to do this in a new way," Flaherty says. "And the pieces [at the city level] are already in place."