In Chicago, food intended for public consumption must be prepared in a licensed kitchen.  

In this economy it is very difficult for entrepreneurs to make an investment in a commercial kitchen so shared incubators or kitchens are one creative, cost-effective answer.  With such creativity comes a gray area wherein permits such as food safety certifications lie.

chef-kitchen2-featured.jpgKitchen licensing is required to protect public health, and food safety inspections are regularly conducted to ensure shared kitchens meet sanitary codes.

Last week, hundreds of pounds of food were destroyed in a Chicago shared kitchen belonging to small businesses and entrepreneurs.  Kitchen Chicago had a proper license from the city Health Department, but one of the entrepreneurs who used the kitchen, Flora Lazar, was informed she needed to obtain her own business license for her candy business in order to operate out of the kitchen.  

After a health inspection, the Chicago Health Department determined that every tenant at Kitchen Chicago needed a business license to operate at the facility.  While Kitchen Chicago is a licensed facility, inspected and approved by the City of Chicago Health Department, the owner of Kitchen Chicago is responsible for ensuring that proper food safety practices are followed.

Initially the tenants of Kitchen Chicago were denied the opportunity to obtain a license due to rules stipulating that only one business license is to be issued per address.  Food safety guidelines and business licensing guidelines are two separate concerns.

Kitchen Chicago was inspected twice–once by an inspector and once by the Chicago Health Department director.  The inspector said each of the entrepreneurs’ perishable food needed to be stored separately in the cooler. Kitchen Chicago owner Alexis Leverenz said the director superseded the inspector’s judgment.

Inspectors dumped and poured bleach on about 300 pounds of fruit last Friday saying they destroyed the food because the original source was unknown, prepared somewhere else under unknown conditions, and was stored in unmarked plastic bags.

One of the processes to meet the safety guidelines is to track the source of food in case of a food borne illness, by saving receipts of all procured perishable goods. It doesn’t appear that sanitation was a major issue.    

The issue has been resolved and on Monday, Lazar and Sunday Dinner caterers were given new business licenses.  

The Chicago Department of Public Health asked Leverenz to discuss her experience with the health department and Business Affairs to make the process smoother and cleaner in the future for other shared kitchen space owners and users.

Other cities sponsor shared kitchen and retail space such as Eastern Market in DC and La Marqueta in New York.  

In New Mexico, home-based food producers are required to apply for a permit to sell baked goods.  In Wyoming, a bill was introduced and passed to make selling cottage goods legal.  In Wisconsin a newly signed bill allows home-based canned foods to be sold, but the law limits annual sales to $5,000 a year.  Other states that have such laws include AL, IN, IA, KY, ME, NH, NC, OH, PA, TN, VT, VA and UT.

Those involved in the incident hope media coverage will draw awareness to the confusion around shared kitchen space and inform others in the food culture community, and entrepreneurs, of licensing issues.  The Chicago incident has shown that renting kitchen space results in a collective assertion for responsibility for other renters’ food and that the end goal is safe food practices.