Mubarakah Ibrahim needs to rent a commercial kitchen for no more then 10 hours each week to prepare and bake the dozens of navy bean pies that her small business distributes to local cafes and grocery stores.
But current city law treats her, and charges her, as if she owns an independent restaurant.
Now she wants to change the law.
On Sept. 17, Ibrahim, a local fitness trainer, radio host, and founder of the bean pie bakery and distributor Mmm Pies and Gourmet Desserts, submitted a proposed ordinance to the Board of Alders that would create a new “Micro-Business Food Service License” that would be available to businesses that use an established business’s commercial kitchen and that gross less than $250,000 per year.
The proposed ordinance would reduce the number of times city officials have to reinspect commercial kitchens just because of the presence of a new renter, and would permit renters to pay a lower annual food service license fee than is required of commercial kitchen owners.
“I want to make the process of having a micro-business or start-up a little less cumbersome and a little less redundant and time consuming for both the business that’s trying to start up as well as for city employees,” Ibrahim told the Independent. “The process of getting certified as a food establishment was just at times frustrating, repetitive, and unnecessarily time consuming.”
The proposed ordinance, which Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison has endorsed, came before the Board of Alders as a communication during Monday night’s full board meeting. Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers will now assign the proposed ordinance to a committee, which will then give it a public hearing before sending it back to the full board for a vote.
Click here to read the proposed ordinance.
“It’s helpful for food-based business entrepreneurs to have our permitting process right-sized for them,” city Economic Development Officer Karla Lindquist said in support of Ibrahim’s proposal. “It makes a lot of sense.”
“Smaller situations should have smaller processes,” Morrison argued. She said that the current laws regulating commercial kitchen usage are designed with larger businesses in mind, and that, so long as the health or welfare of the public is not negatively impacted, the law should be updated to better accommodate businesses of smaller scope.
Bean Pies Meet Bureaucracy
Ibrahim started her bean pie business in early 2017, setting out to bake and sell the sweet, custard-like pies she loved eating as a child in Brooklyn. (Click here to read a full story on the history of Mmm Pies.)
At first, she considered opening her own kitchen and bakery. But when she crunched the numbers, she realized that she would need at least $100,000 to stock a new commercial kitchen with refrigerators, ovens, and other equipment necessary for baking. Plus, she only needed to use a commercial kitchen for four to 10 hours each week in order to bake the four to 12 dozen pies that she and her one other employee planned to distribute to local cafes and grocery stores.
So she decided instead to rent space by the hour in a downtown bakery’s existing commercial kitchen.
That’s when she first butted up against three provisions in current city law that she said made it that much more difficult for her to get her small business off the ground.
First, she learned that, even though the bakery’s kitchen had already been certified by the city as a legitimate food service establishment, she still had to have four different departments inspect the same kitchen space again before she could get her own food service license. (Ibrahim declined to share the name of the bakery she originally rented from because, she said, the owner is no longer making the commercial kitchen space available for rent.)
Ibrahim outlined in the proposed ordinance the process that she and other renters of city-certified commercial kitchen spaces have to go through when they want to use another company’s space and equipment to make their own business’s food.
First, she wrote, she had to go in person to the city Health Department’s offices at 54 Meadow St. to pick up an “Application for a Permit to Operate a Food Service Establishment” and instruction sheet.
Then she needed to get independent sign-offs on the application from the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Zoning Department, the Regional Water Authority, and the Building Department. She said the fire marshal and regional water authority officials had to inspect the kitchen space in person, even though Ibrahim had not changed anything about the bakery’s kitchen or the equipment for the purposes of Mmm Pies. She then needed to get a final sign off from the city’s Health Department.
Second, she learned that she had to pay an annual fee to the Health Department in order to keep the food service permit and that the fee was based on the kitchen’s square footage, not on how much or little she used it. Since the kitchen she was using is between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet, she had to pay the city $275 for the year, which was the same amount that the bakery’s owner had to pay the city for the same kitchen.
Third, Ibrahim was looking to start her business in March 2017. But she found out that the certificate fee is only good from May 1 through Apr. 30 every year, and that, if she started her business in March, she would need to pay a full year’s fee for just two months of operations. She decided to delay the launch of her business until May 2017 instead of paying the fee twice in three months.
Earlier this year, as Ibrahim looked to move to a new commercial kitchen space, this one in Wooster Square, she faced the same three hurdles.
“And I found that I wasn’t the only one,” she said. “There’s a lot of other people who said they were having the same problems.”
She said she spoke with CitySeed, the local food nonprofit that runs the city’s farmers markets, and found out that city officials had reinspected the organization’s commercial kitchen on Grand Avenue eight different times just because they have eight different small businesses using the space.
“I know the fire marshal has more important things to do,” she said.
Fewer Reinspections, Fewer Fees
Ibrahim’s proposed ordinance addresses the hurdles she has faced by reducing the number of required city inspections and reducing or prorating fees for renters of existing commercial kitchens.
The ordinance states that the new process would require renters of licensed commercial kitchen spaces who gross less than $250,000 each year to present a copy of the host business’s current permit to operate a food service establishment in New Haven to the city’s Health Department. The renting business would also have to pay a $75 annual fee for a MicroBusiness Food Service License.
Furthermore, the fee would be prorated per quarter depending on when the new business launched so that businesses starting in March would not have to pay a full annual fee two months before paying another full annual fee in May.
In addition to limiting this license to operators who rent licensed commercial kitchens and gross less than $250,000 each year, the proposed ordinance states that the new micro-business license would only be available to businesses that bake or cook without the use of frying or other heavy cooking oil that would require a great trap; that do not make any structural changes to the licensed kitchen facility; and that do not install any new major equipment.
“A micro-business does not bring in the same financial resources as a larger business,” the proposed ordinance reads, “and as a result does not have the same financial capacity for overhead. Small startup food businesses in New Haven begin with limited time and financial resources. This is more severe for people who have historically been shut out of access to capital.”
Ibrahim said that, after a three-month hiatus, she is about to move into a new Wooster Square commercial kitchen space, and that she and her one employee will resume baking and distributing bean pies to Edge of the Woods, Kevin’s Seafood, and Hamden’s Thyme & Season within the next few weeks.
She said that, because she is just about to set up shop in a new kitchen, she won’t immediately benefit from the proposed change in law and its concomitant reduction in reinspections and relatively high permit fees. She said she’s still waiting for approvals from the four relevant city departments, and will have to pay the full annual food service permit fee, which she’ll have to re-up in full in May.
“Hopefully if I ever have to move again,” she said, “the ordinance will help.”
“Incubator Kitchen” Still In The Works
In addition to supporting Ibrahim’s proposed ordinance, Lindquist, who is the project manager for the city economic development’s food-related initiatives, said that the city is making progress on its “incubator kitchen” program, which would establish a commercial kitchen and business support network for local food business entrepreneurs.
The program, which the department has spent years working on, was originally slated for the Goffe Street Armory. Lindquist said that the city is no longer looking to use the dilapidated former armory to house the test kitchen for new food-related businesses because of the cost and extent of rehab work required to get the building in suitable enough condition to occupy.
She said that the department now has its eyes on three potential locations, two in Fair Haven and one in Newhallville. She said whichever location the city picks will become home to a commercial kitchen which food entrepreneurs can rent to use at rates significantly less than buying and running one’s own kitchen.
“In addition to renting the space itself,” she said, “the accelerators will have other supports for new businesses, including supports around marketing, connections with wholesale or retail food distributors, and potentially connections with local producers for ingredients.”
“This is going to be a pretty large-scale project,” she said. She said the project won’t be finished within the next six months, but that the department is currently reaching out to community-based food groups to partner with the city for the incubator kitchen’s launch in the not-too-distant future.
Click on the SoundCloud players below to listen to interviews with Ibrahim on episodes of WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync” and “The Table Underground with Tagan Engel” programs.