Shades of Mildred Pierce may be cropping up throughout the state as lawmakers are set to decide whether mothers and others are allowed to sell homemade muffins, cakes and pies at local stores and restaurants and directly to consumers.
Slammed by the economy, many households are looking to follow in the footsteps of the fictional heroine by earning a bit of money on the side with home-cooked confections — without the huge upfront costs in leasing certified commercial kitchens and complying with myriad business rules.
The bill, up for a final vote in the state Senate as early as Wednesday, would permit home bakers to sell as much as $50,000 worth of goods a year, as long as they don’t contain cream or meat products. So far, more than 30 other states have similar laws.
“This is maybe the most significant public health-related bill in this year’s session,” said Bruce Pomer, executive director of the Health Officers Assn. of California.
With consumers increasingly jittery over recall scares and reports of food-borne illnesses, critics worry that the bill, AB 1616, co-written by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake), could become a dangerous example of health-related corner-cutting — especially in direct-to-consumer sales.
“There’s no way to ensure that they have the minimum standards in place — basic hot and cold running water, equipment in good repair,” said Liza Frias, chair of the California Retail Food Safety Coalition. “We don’t want baked goods coming out with metal in them.”
Even so, the effort to allow the sale of homemade food has been gaining momentum not only as a financial boost to home bakers and the local governments that gain tax revenue but also as a spur to the growing movement to serve healthful food.
“The food industry has made what we eat chemically laden and cheap. It doesn’t provide for the people looking for real ingredients,” said baker Debra Baretta of Penngrove, Calif., in Sonoma County.
The bill was inspired last year when the Los Angeles County Health Department ordered Mark Stambler to stop selling as many as 50 loaves of bread he baked each week in his backyard oven in Los Feliz. Stambler, 59, had hoped to grow his baking into a full-time business, but the Health Department closed him down.
Under state law, it’s a misdemeanor for small-scale home cooks and bakers — often mothers and part-time workers — to make money off their creations, except to benefit charities.
Start-up food companies are required to work out of certified commercial kitchens, an expensive proposition that bars many from even trying.
“A small food company has no chance. It’s impossible to make any money at all,” Baretta said. A flight attendant with three preteen sons, Baretta rents two kitchens to make organic and gluten-free baked goods and barely recoups her costs.
“I literally work day and night,” she said. “Had I been able to just bake at home, it would have made my life so much easier.”
Gatto’s California Homemade Food Act would allow “non-potentially hazardous food” such as bread, fruit pies, empanadas, jams, honey and dried nuts to be sold out of houses, apartment complexes and other residences.
Sales of small-batch foods could spawn a lucrative industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, supporters said. Many of the so-called Bakers Bills in other states were passed into law since the economic downturn.
California already is a hotbed for the farm-to-table movement, increasingly popular as consumers become skeptical of mass-produced food and begin placing a premium on products with recognizable sources and sustainable production.
The number of farmers markets in California jumped more than 25% last year, with 1 in 10 markets nationwide in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Handcrafted, artisanal foods now are sold in such major chains as Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Starbucks Corp.
“Homemade foods breed personal connections between food producers and their consumers,” said Christina Oatfield, food policy director for the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which helped develop the bill.
Under the bill, home food producers would still have to obtain permits, label their products as homemade and offer lists of ingredients. Their gross annual sales would be capped next year at $35,000, rising to $50,000 in 2015.
Those selling directly to consumers would have to register with their local health departments and complete food handler courses. Purveyors selling through a retailer would also be subject to health department inspections.
Goods with meat or raw dairy products, which are prone to food-borne illnesses and require refrigeration, would have to be made in a commercial kitchen.
But some safety experts still are hesitant.
Home cooks, the bill’s opponents argued, are more likely to not use hair nets or wash their hands and to continue working in the presence of sick children, pets or other potential contaminants. Home-based food businesses wouldn’t undergo the same rigorous inspections or grading processes that restaurants and larger retailers do, they said.
Some opponents, such as Pomer of the state health officers group, want more restrictions added to the bill.
The bill, he said, should prohibit cottage food producers from selling directly to consumers, lower the sales cap to $25,000 a year, prevent products from being sent more than five miles away from the kitchen and make other adjustments to limit the chances of contamination.
Micro-enterprises are a major economic engine, driving innovation and creating jobs. Home kitchens selling commercial foods in tiny West Virginia have generated annual sales of $100 million, according to that state’s Department of Agriculture.
With a still-weak economy, California could see home kitchens become a hearty tax revenue stream, as well as a launching pad for full-fledged businesses.
The barriers are much greater when aspiring bakers are not allowed to work from home.
In rural areas, wannabe bakers or cooks have to build, lease or buy a licensed commercial kitchen. In cities, rents for such spaces start at about $30 an hour.
Working out of a commercial kitchen would be “completely financially impossible,” said Amber Gillespie, 34, a Sacramento stay-at-home mother with two young children.
The cake decorator said it takes her up to 30 hours to complete a project. The costs of child care, ingredients and baking materials make a cake business “cost-prohibitive for anybody,” she said.
For now, she’s teaching cake-decorating and honing her skills on homemade creations, which she gives away.
“I’m constantly being asked to make cakes,” she said. “It would be nice to get paid for it.”