No 'cupcake' law? No sales of homemade goodies

No 'cupcake' law? No sales of homemade goodies

GEORGETOWN — If it's fall, it's a good bet that Jill Pope is in the kitchen, whipping up batches of that Georgetown-famous homemade spicy mustard from her father's recipe, a perennial best-seller during the city's November Holiday Gathering.

"People come for it," she says. "I get calls during the year from people wanting it."

But for the first time in two decades, Pope didn't have good news when fans of her horseradish-laden mustard asked how many jars she would have on sale.

This year, food sales were off-limits at Georgetown's 27th Holiday Gathering after organizers were told by the Vermilion County Health Department that any food made in home kitchens and sold for a profit would violate state public health laws.

It's not a new law, but it's one that hadn't been enforced here in past years.

The only way around it: The home city or county must pass a so-called "cupcake law," making home-kitchen businesses exempt from health department inspections as long as gross sales are less than $1,000 a month and items sold don't fall into the "potentially hazardous foods" category — i.e. ones that require being kept at certain temperatures prior to serving.

It didn't matter that the women of Georgetown mostly stick to nonhazardous sweets — cupcakes, cookies and simple baked goods — after the city council last month rejected passing a cupcake law over concerns about liability and who would enforce the rules.

"It's kind of an upsetting and sore subject for us," said Pope, whose mustard had become so popular during the two-week, 30-plus-vendor Holiday Gathering, held in various locations across Georgetown, that she upsized her jars to a quart.

At last year's event, Pope sold more than 20 cases of it (12 jars to a case) out of her backyard shop. Visitors also flocked to "Grandma's Attic," as Pope's McKinley Street shop is known, for cookies, caramels and fudge made by fellow Georgetown resident Judy Greer.

This year, there was none of that, much to the dismay of longtime residents like Paula Roach, who sells crafts, not treats, during the annual event but has seen first-hand how much the latter helps business.

"It just seems so stupid to me, after all these years, for them to make such an issue out of it, especially with no one getting sick or complaints," she said.


Four alternatives

Director Doug Toole said the Vermilion County Health Department has been aware of the Holiday Gathering for years, inspecting commercial-grade kitchens at Georgetown churches and other sites that seek temporary permits to serve meals and food items during the event.

But it has only been more recently that they've become aware of the number of people hawking homemade food items around town.

Last year, after publication of the Holiday Gathering flyer with a map listing all locations that paid to be listed, health department officials called the food vendors and explained the issue.

Roach said that happened so close to the event that most vendors went ahead, business as usual. But this past spring, at their first planning meeting of 2017, event organizers contacted the health department, which sent in an official to explain the law and alternatives.

Basically, without passing a cupcake law, they had four legal options:

— Sell only commercially prepackaged food items.

— Sell only nonpotentially hazardous food items and give all proceeds to a nonprofit.

— Sell items produced in a cottage food operation at a farmers' market.

— Sell items produced in a nonresidential facility inspected by the local health department and pay $50 for a temporary food permit.


Alderman: 'It's (expletive)'

Georgetown Alderman Darren Alexander owns a concession and catering company and serves food during the Holiday Gathering that's prepared at the commercial kitchen at the Georgetown Fairgrounds.

He's not a fan of the health department's decision to enforce the rules about homemade items but was one of just two aldermen out of eight to vote in favor of the city adopting a cupcake law.

He was disappointed others didn't follow suit.

"I know all the food codes. I know the laws. I understand them, and I understand why they are in place," Alexander said. "However, at the same time, for a county office to come and use them codes and laws to destroy an event that's taken place for so many years ... I think it's (expletive).

"I think laws are good and meant to be followed, but I believe in some cases there needs to be exceptions."

If the concern is safety and keeping people from getting sick, Alexander said, then why allow someone to make baked goods in their home and give the proceeds to a nonprofit?

"It should be one way or the other," he said.


Enforcement hurdles

The state Legislature passed the cupcake law in 2014, after the Madison County Health Department shut down the $200-a-month home cupcake business of an 11-year-old Troy girl. But Chicago-area public health officials pushed an amendment making the law applicable only if local governing bodies, a county or city, adopted the ordinance.

A minority of Illinois counties — only eight of 102 as of 2015 — have adopted it.

Toole said Vermilion County's board of health has not supported a cupcake law, which he believes is poorly written. Among the drawbacks, he said: If the health department receives a complaint about a home-kitchen business, it will almost automatically fail, given that staff is geared only to inspect commercial-grade kitchens.

At the time that Georgetown aldermen considered adopting a cupcake law, Toole said there was disagreement over who would be responsible for enforcing all the rules — for instance, that a home-kitchen operation was taking in less than $1,000 a month and that foods were being labeled properly.

The latter shouldn't matter, said Alexander, who argues that people who come to the Holiday Gathering know that what they were buying wasn't prepared in a commercial kitchen. No one has complained before, he said, so why break from tradition now?

"I cannot see a logical explanation as to why they are trying to put a stop to this," he said. "I told them to bake, but these ladies are older and have morals and are law-abiding citizens and don't want to create waves or be the rebel.

"It's ridiculous is what it is. ... Something these ladies look forward to every year is being stripped away from them. What next is government going to strip away?"


Hoopeston can relate

Champaign County officials considered enacting a cupcake law but decided against pursuing it in the end, said Jim Roberts, environmental health director with the C-U Public Health District.

The district allows bake sales as fundraisers as long as organizers post information about what the products are and what ingredients they contain, for those who may have allergies. But anyone looking to hold a for-profit bake sale is made aware of what the law does and doesn't allow, Roberts said.

Elsewhere in the area, the same regulations that drastically altered Georgetown's annual event this month brought to an end a longtime community happening in Hoopeston. The annual salad luncheon, put on by the Ladies at St. Anthony Catholic Church, was called off in 2014.

Back then, the health department told organizers that the 30 to 35 salads sold could no longer be prepared in home kitchens the day before the one-day charity event. While proceeds went to a nonprofit, some of the food — taco salads, for one — fell into the "potentially hazardous" category because of ingredients that need to remain at a certain temperature until serving, Toole said.

Pat Northam, who spearheaded the 22-year church event, said people came from all over Hoopeston and beyond, looking forward to the homemade creations — pea salads, potato salads, chef salads and more.

As far as anyone falling ill, she said, "We never had a complaint."

The restrictions were "just so unreasonable," Northam said, adding that all of the proceeds funded various charitable causes. "It went to very good things."

The event folded when the group couldn't come up with any practical alternatives.

One suggestion from the health department was for everyone to make the salads in the church kitchen the night before, which led Northam to wonder: "Can you imagine the number of women in the kitchen at one time?"

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bkp wrote on November 23, 2017 at 9:11 am

These health departments hit peak nanny-state paternalism a few years ago. They need to stick to commercial food sales with lower limits on gross proceeds. They'd probably shut down lemonade stands if they heard of one operating. If I eat homemade food I know I'm trusting the chef! I take responsibility, I don't need the health department.