Arts & Entertainment

Calif. foodies want laws for homemade food sales

A view of homemade pickling jars.
A view of homemade pickling jars.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for International C

Mark Stambler's handcrafted bread was a favorite at Los Angeles specialty food shops until public health officials cracked down on the crusty loaves leavened in his garage and baked in a wood-burning oven in his backyard.

The home-baked operation ran afoul of strict food preparation laws that prevent Californians from selling homemade goods.

"It's a case of regulations that have gone a little haywire," said Stambler, a soft-spoken man with clean-cut silver hair who has never had a customer complain about his bread.

"Handcrafted," ''artisanal" and "homegrown" may be buzz words for gourmets, but they can be red flags for regulators concerned about food safety, zoning or myriad other rules. In recent years, state and local ordinances have surrounded do-it-yourselfers in red tape on everything from sales of backyard flower bouquets to restaurants growing their own vegetables to an underground market peddling home cooked goodies.

Foodies are fighting back with so-called cottage food laws. At least 30 states now have laws that allow sales of home-made goods — about half passed since the Great Recession began in 2007.

Stambler is now looking for a lawmaker to introduce a bill next year that would allow cash-strapped California residents to make a little scratch from scratch cooking. Currently, even bake sales are illegal here unless they benefit a charity.

By comparison, homemade foods have a $100 million impact on the economy of West Virginia, a state with fewer than 2 million residents and high poverty rates, said Buddy Davidson, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. The state even teaches home chefs how to market everything from pumpkin butter to baking mixes.

Said Janelle Orsi, a lawyer with Oakland, Calif.-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, "With a really high unemployment rate it's kind of impractical to assume that people will eventually just find jobs and it's important for communities and individuals to be able to take their livelihoods into their own hands."

Orsi is working with Stambler on a more permissive cottage food law for California that would allow casual cooks and aspiring pros to sell shelf-stable homemade goods like breads, cookies, cakes, jams, candy, granola, coffee, tea and baking mixes.

California's law would be modeled after an Ohio law, Orsi said, which allows chefs the freedom to succeed because there is no cap on how much someone can make off their ventures. Michigan, in contrast, imposes a $15,000 annual limit.

Standing in the way of this commerce now are long-standing public health and food preparation regulations that require permits, inspections and stringent sanitary standards.

Clean hands, hair nets (or hats) and vermin control measures are some of the obvious rules to prevent food contamination and illness. Commercial kitchens are required to have stainless steel food preparation surfaces, easily cleanable equipment and nonporous floors, walls and ceilings.

The image of a casual cook concocting sweets or other treats in a home kitchen, however, may not inspire confidence in the cleanliness of the operation. While commercial kitchens are occasionally policed by inspectors, an irresponsible home cook with sick kids, or pets running through the kitchen, or a simple failure to wash hands could turn the stomach of a typical American consumer expecting a high standard of cleanliness in food.

Local food advocates say a sense of community and a chef's pride in his or her products keep food clean and of high quality.

"Even in the finest restaurants and finest restaurant chains, there are some lapses in the daily food safety efforts, which are intended to keep our population safe from foodborne illness," said Angelo Bellomo, director of Los Angeles county's Department of Environmental Health.

Bellomo recommended that any proposed law include a disclaimer label that the food was not prepared in facilities inspected by health officials and a requirement that sleeping quarters be separate from food preparation areas.

Current regulations force wanna-be bakers and chefs to go through a rigorous approval process and use commercial kitchens, which rent for as much as $75 an hour, said Iso Rabins, a local food advocate. That's money that could be spent on the finest ingredients.

"I've worked in restaurants most my life and restaurant kitchens are generally far dirtier than any home kitchen you'll encounter — some are clean, but a lot are disgusting," Rabins said.

Rabins is a founder of ForageSF, a group that circumvented state laws by billing its Underground Market event in San Francisco as a club. The $5 admission was considered a membership fee to purchase from food entrepreneurs who didn't go through the permitting process required of other retailers.

It drew 50,000 visitors before health officials shut it down in June and issued a cease and desist order, though Rabins still hopes to open it again.

Others have skirted the law with food swaps — no money changing hands means no enforcement. Home chefs in Los Angeles and San Francisco barter jars, bottles and other individually packaged foods with each other.

The gatherings first gained popularity in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a group called BK Swappers, where co-organizer Jane Lerner says she's never heard of someone getting sick from any of the food swaps, which are held in cities all over the country including Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle and Detroit.

"The crux of the event is to admire the food you see and then meet people who made it," said Lerner. The dishes tend to be brag-worthy, carefully prepared and unique — like spicy mango pickles or homemade Italian cookies.

"There is definitely an element of showoff happening, but it's very friendly and sweet."

Many of those who try to sell homemade food as a sideline hope to make it a career.

Stambler would rather bake his rye and whole wheat loaves than consult and write grants for nonprofits.

He kneads his dough and forms his loaves on a wooden island in his sunny kitchen in a large Spanish-style home with a view of the Rowena Reservoir. A bundle of county fair blue ribbons hang near the pantry as a testament to the quality of his bread.

Before The Cheese Shop in Silverlake and Wonderful Provisions in Echo Park were busted by health inspectors, they frequently sold out of 50 to 60 loaves he baked every week.

Now, he sells about 10 to 15 loaves a week through a local community-supported agriculture group he wouldn't name to protect it from health inspectors.

More than anything, Stambler says, "I want to go legit."