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Illinois allows home cooks to sell shelf-stable foods beyond farmers markets

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A baker works with balls of dough.

Starting in January, cottage food operators can make direct sales and deliveries of products like cookies, breads and jams. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

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Danielle Robinson operates Dottie’s Kitchen — named after her grandmother — in her suburban Chicago home. She bakes blueberry lemon, cherry almond and banana breads. Robinson sells her goods at farmers markets in the area.

“My goal is to ultimately have my own commercial kitchen space, whether it be retail or in a warehouse situation,” she said.

Robinson is a cottage food entrepreneur, a home cook who whips up shelf-stable foods such as breads, cakes, jams and cookies.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a law this spring that will allow entrepreneurs to make direct sales and deliveries to customers beyond farmers markets. They will be able to sell their products across the state without a $1,000 monthly sales cap.

The law takes effect in January. By then, Robinson said, she plans to retool her website and expects to be able to serve more customers. 

Robinson registered as a cottage food operator with her local health department. That’s what bakers are required to do. In Chicago, only 22 cottage food operators have registered since 2017, according to the city’s public health department. But Beth Kregor, director of the local branch of the Institute for Justice at the University of Chicago Law School, said many home cooks in the state operate in secret because of the restrictions. Illinois was behind some other states on home-based food businesses.

“Illinois really had a patchwork of different laws in different places, and you might cross town borders and find that you had totally different opportunities,” Kregor said.

The pandemic led people back to the kitchen, where they dusted off heirloom recipes or baked sourdough bread. Kregor recalled talking to a woman who simply wanted to sell bread from her front porch.

“What could be more wholesome, more traditional? She used recipes that her grandmother had used. Her grandmother had sold loaves of bread to her neighbors. And she wanted to continue this tradition. But it wasn’t allowed, and she could not convince the local government to pass a law allowing her to do that,” Kregor said.

Kregor said she thinks more people will register when the law changes, and then they can advertise their businesses proudly, without hiding. The state registration fee will double to $50.

Florida also passed a law in June that gives home cooks more flexibility. Cottage food cooks start off small to see if they can scale up or experiment with an array of recipes.

That model can be economically feasible for budding home cooks, like Karla Armour in Chicago. On a summer morning, she was preparing cornbread. The recipe was half-blueberry, half-orange cranberry. In 2018, the home baker founded La Matriz, Spanish for “the womb.”

“Because I find that when you’re baking, there’s not a lot of noise. It’s a nice kind of quiet,” Armour said. She doesn’t have the money to rent a commercial kitchen, so she is a cottage food baker at home.

“If I can at least work from home and do that slow build to the point where I can get into a rental kitchen,” Armour said.

 And bake her specialty: scones.

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