Making It Local: Barriers to Success

Source: Metropolis
Date: September 1, 2011
Byline: Elise Vider

Right now, it’s just an ugly, long-vacant supermarket in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood eyesore. But if plans move forward as expected, 310 S. 48th Street will undergo a transformation into something that says more about where the city is going than where it’s been.

The Center for Culinary Enterprises is expected to open its doors next summer, billed “as the nation’s most comprehensive food business incubator – a powerful engine for creating jobs and new community-based food businesses, engaging youth, overcoming critical food access obstacles and serving as a hub of community health and nutrition services.”

The $5.5-million, 13,000-plus-square-foot complex will house three shared-use commercial kitchens; Little Louie’s BBQ, a full-service restaurant for training community youth in restaurant operations; two retail spaces for local businesses and a multi-media learning center with a demonstration kitchen. The project is funded in part with $1.5 million from the US Economic Development Administration, along with other grants, donations and loans.

The developer, the Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation, sees the culinary center as a way to tackle twin problems: the need to encourage business and job growth in an impoverished area and, at the same time, increase access to fresh, high-quality food.

Philadelphia’s challenges with nutrition and health are well documented. Hunger correlates with poor nutrition, which in turn has brought diabetes and obesity to epidemic proportions in Philadelphia. The city’s new Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive plan identifies citywide access to healthy food as a key goal by supporting urban agriculture, community gardens, farmers markets and healthy corner stores. No mention is made of small, artisanal food producers.

As in many jurisdictions, it is illegal in Philadelphia to manufacture food for sale in a home kitchen and without proper licenses and certification. But for many small food makers here, the cost and process of meeting requirements are so onerous, they keep their operations underground.

In planning its culinary center, the Enterprise Center conducted an online survey of prospective users in 2008-09. Of 82 respondents, 42 or 84% reported that they were producing their goods in an uncertified home kitchen. Greg Heller of the Enterprise Center says that some of these underground products find their way to farmers’ markets, stores and restaurants, including “one product that is very well known and loved in West Philadelphia,” which he declined to name.

Some jurisdictions are loosening up requirements for small producers. In New York State, baked goods, candy (except chocolate), jams, spices and snack foods are exempt from commercial-kitchen requirements. North Carolina allows “low-risk packaged foods” such as baked goods, jams and jellies, candies, dried mixes, spices, some sauces and liquids and pickles and acidified foods to be made at home, as long as there is no pet on the premises and other requirements are met.

There are no such allowances in Philadelphia. For small and start-up food makers in the city, one solution is access to shared-use kitchens, licensed and fully equipped commercial kitchens that can be rented by the hour. The culinary center in West Philadelphia, when completed, will have three such kitchens: two small and one larger facility for baking. Right now, there is believed to be only one legal shared kitchen in Philadelphia, the Greensgrow Community Kitchen operating out of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Kensington. (A short-lived shared kitchen closed its doors not long ago on South Street.)

Noelle Dames, who managed the Greensgrow kitchen, says she gets a steady stream of inquiries. But even these cannot be accommodated right now: the project is “on indefinite hiatus, not accepting new tenants, due to the complexity and costs of operating,” she reports.

And the hurdles for small entrepreneurs to even get to the point where they can boil water at a shared kitchen are daunting. Dames and many others familiar with Philadelphia’s license and permit requirements for small food producers use words like “archaic” and “antiquated” to describe the multiple licenses, certifications, paperwork, inspections, red tape and costs.

The barriers may be costing the city its chance to be a regional center for small, job-creating businesses in the artisanal/locavore sector.

“There definitely has to be oversight. We all understand that,” Dames says. “But [the city] has to be able to recognize new uses. They take a very outdated approach.” She estimates that it can cost $1,500 or more to get started as a small food maker, even before buying a single ingredient.

Stephen Horton of the Enterprise Center, who also runs a sideline business as a jam maker, says the city’s approach is geared to boosting revenues. Especially galling is the city’s $30 charge to certify that ServSafe, a national food-handling license, has already certified the applicant. “It sends the wrong message,” says Horton.

Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development, acknowledges the value of encouraging such small businesses, especially as a desperately needed generator of entry-level jobs. But he also notes “food businesses come with regulatory issues involving [their] impact on neighbors and on public health. For example, we had an instance where we were criticized for not supporting a zoning variance for a small business that wholesaled/retailed frozen fish out of a rowhouse in a mixed residential/industrial neighborhood. Well, if I lived next door to a fish distributor operating out of a rowhouse, I think I’d have some legitimate concerns.”

Still, he adds, “we have an obligation to help organize the myriad of regulations and approvals they are subject to and make the path through the system predictable and consistent. We are working on this very thing by trying to organize a coordinated inspection system between the Department of Licenses and

Inspections and Health for food establishments.”
Even as it counsels would-be food producers on the labyrinthine licensure process, the Enterprise Center is promoting such policy change to reduce the barriers of entry for small food entrepreneurs and to encourage a more proactive approach here.

“Philadelphia,” says Horton, “may not be at the end of the line, but its way, way in the back of the pack.