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You want to do business in the city of Chicago? You gotta have a license.
But: What kind of license?
This was the issue of the hour at Friday's Chicago Food Policy Summit panel on shared-use kitchens, a last-minute addition to the lineup. As such, turnout was not what I predicted; no one seemed to know what room it was in. But the group that did turn out was a good one, and for the most part full of thoughtful suggestions as to what steps could be taken to cut through an impenetrable thicket of contradictory information.
I'm going to assume that, unlike me, you don't thrill to the minutiae of the City licensing code. (Whatever do you talk about on dates?) But, in a nutshell, here's the problem: the city has told business owners like Kitchen Chicago's Alexis Leverenz and Logan Square Kitchen's Zina Murray that every caterer, baker, confectioner, and jam maker using their facilities needs to have their own retail food establishment license, the basic license that covers all spaces used for food prep, service, and sales. But when their tenants try to apply for that license—which costs $660 and is valid for two years—they're told they can't get one because a license already exists for that address: namely, the ones held by Leverenz and Sadowski.
Shared-use kitchens are a new concept (there are three in Chicago) that dovetails perfectly with the needs of a food scene increasingly geared toward locally sourced products and small-batch production. Access to a commercial kitchen is a significant barrier to entry for a food business—commercial kitchens are big, complicated, and expensive to run. Shared-use kitchens allow small-food artisans and other entrepreneurs to ramp up their businesses with a minimum of risk. As food systems advocate Jim Javenkoski, who also sat on the panel, pointed out, they can become economic engines for a city, strengthening the infrastructure of the local food system by helping small entrepreneurs become viable.
It's an understatement to say the city's licensing structure hasn't caught up with these new business models. As a result of what's now widely referred to as the "Kitchen Chicago incident," meetings are being held and committees are being convened. But right now, says Murray, "Everything is kind of frozen. We're getting close and closer to farmers' market season, and people need our kitchens to prepare all these wonderful things we love to have at the markets. We really feel like we're all on the same side, we just don't know it yet—but it's getting urgent."
In the long term, Leverenz would love to see a new category of food license brought into play—call it, say, a "commercial kitchen user license." It could be acquired for a reduced fee and travel with the holder, who could then legitimately use any shared-use kitchen.
In the short term? Well, would you believe there's a line in the licensing code (Chapter 4-4-020) specifically earmarked as the license for "businesses and occupations not provided for by any other code provisions"? That one might work.
No one from the city was available to join today's discussion, but they say they're all ears. Murray, Leverenz, and other advocates hope to be sitting down with them soon.