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Friday, May 28, 2010

Good News, Maybe, for Shared-Use Kitchens

Posted By on 05.28.10 at 01:40 PM

While everyone's aflutter over food trucks, another ordinance is in the works that just maybe could someday make it easier for existing small food start-ups to stay on track.

After months of lobbying, a shared-use kitchen ordinance is now circulating. The (very early) draft legislation, which came out of 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett's office, lays out the parameters for licensing a shared-use kitchen such as Kitchen Chicago, which was the (unwilling) vehicle that brought all sorts of knotty bureaucratic issues into the public eye when a Chicago Department of Public Health inspector paid a disastrous visit to the operation in February.

That this is on the city's radar at all is thanks to a lot of hard work by three parties with their livelihoods at stake: Kitchen Chicago owner Alexis Leverenz, Logan Square Kitchen's Zina Murray, and Splice Kitchen proprietor Tonia Ojuluwayo. Since February the trio has aggressively mobilized to educate the city about their businesses, which have, of late, been trapped in a regulatory gray zone in which they and their clients can't obtain the licensing the city says it requires because no existing licensing applies.

After weeks of wrangling to nail down a date, representatives from the departments of licensing, health, and law came out April 28 for a field trip that toured Kitchen Chicago and Logan Square Kitchen (they ran out of time to go to Splice). Afterward, says Zina Murray, the rep from licensing said they found the trip very helpful, but Murray's been unable to set up a follow-up meeting so far. And in fact, my phone call was the first she'd heard that legislation was actually in the (preliminary) works.

Murray acknowledged that the health department in particular has "a lot of challenges with this kind of situation. I think they're trying to come down on the side of being very conservative and being very concerned about public health."

But, she points out, "With Alexis, Tonia, and I here on site, with sanitation certificates, making sure that everything's done right, it's like having an on-site health inspector full-time. I mean, we're competing with each other for clients! A big, clean, beautiful kitchen is what we have to offer.

"My concern is that we have a strong dialogue between the incubator owners and the aldermen and the city officials. Because this is a very innovative concept, my fear is that there's a tendency to overregulate, and that can crush this economic development that's limping along in a terrible economy. And if regulation prevents people from starting businesses, that's no good."

Burnett, whose ward is home to Kitchen Chicago, said in a message that business affairs and the public health department are still working on the legislation and that they're being careful to look at various scenarios it might address, "so that we don't have to go back and rewrite it later." He's not sure when the ordinance might actually get introduced but, he texted later, he's "trying to push it."

Want more background? This overview, which was provided to city officials on the field trip, makes for instructive reading. Go here to watch a recent Crain's piece on Splice Kitchen.

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