Small businesses using shared kitchens need to beware of regulations

shared kitchenOperating a new catering company or food-related business is difficult to do from home, so the concept of shared kitchens is compelling. Rent space or buy a membership to a shared facility, and a budding chef gets access to commercial equipment in a sanitary space. In many locales, it's great way to grow a home-based business into something more, but beware the local authorities. This Chicago confectioner found out the hard way that city regulations can be confusing and unfair.
The Chicago Tribune's Monica Eng has been reporting on this story since Friday, when city health inspectors destroyed food at Kitchen Chicago. Inspectors have since returned and ruined more. Hundreds of pounds of food destroyed and small businesses at risk because Chicago doesn't have a plan or clear list of rules for small food purveyors to follow. There was nothing wrong with the food, the paperwork just wasn't in order.

Shared kitchens are a great resource for small catering companies or specialty-food start ups. In this case, Kitchen Chicago had the proper license from the city Health Department, but Flora Lazar was told she needed a separate business license for her candy company, which resulted in an inspector visit. In fact, all 11 tenants at Kitchen Chicago apparently need a license to use a licensed facility.

On the one hand is public health concerns, all legitimate. Making sure the kitchen and food preparation meets sanitary codes is critical. So is being able to track the food in case of a food-borne illness. But how many licenses does it take to safeguard the public?

There's an argument to be made that Chicago is just looking for cash by selling licenses. The city gets $660 per license. Requiring the 11 tenants of Kitchen Chicago and the kitchen itself to be licensed brings in more than $7,000.

Other cities are more business friendly. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is allocating money to sponsor a shared-use kitchen in East Harlem, to boost economic development. Aspiring chefs looking to start a business need to look closely at the local laws and regulations. Chicago's Flora Lazar's candy business has to sit out this Valentines Day and work that much harder to succeed, or even survive.

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