Slow Food vs. the City of Chicago

Behind the culinary times, Windy City bureaucrats crack down on canning and charcuteries.

Robin Peterson

On May 26, demonstrators picket a Taco Bell in Madison, Wisc., protesting the firing of 28 workers at local Taco Bells.

When Alexis Leverenz opened Kitchen Chicago five years ago, she knew her business model was new to the city: she wanted to rent a shared-use kitchen” to small business owners like artisan bakers, preservers and caterers. She called the Departments of Health and Business Affairs & Licensing to make sure she could run it legally. Both said, Great idea, people are looking [for kitchens] all the time,’” Leverenz says.

Lula Cafe became another victim of its own innovation last October, when health inspectors dumped 200 jars of preserved fruits and vegetables after they discovered the restaurant lacked a license to can.

However, the city’s enthusiasm was short-lived. When her first client tried to apply for a retail food establishment license – which costs $660 and is the only existing certification for a food-related business – she was denied and told there could be only one such license per address, which Leverenz already had. For months thereafter, Leverenz and her client were shuttled between the departments of licensing, health, and zoning, each claiming another could answer her question about the license. There was nobody addressing the situation,” Leverenz says. For years we were operating under the assumption that we could [rent the kitchen] and no clients could get their own licenses.”

Then one day in late January, the Department of Business Affairs & Licensing told her clients they must stop operations until each business had a license of its own. Two of Leverenz’s 13 clients, Sunday Dinner Club and Flora Confections, finally had their applications accepted, and two weeks later they scheduled a health inspection to complete the licensing process. But instead of granting approval as expected, inspectors just started throwing food out,” says Leverenz – hundreds of pounds of local, organic fruit purees, cheese, granola bars, and baking ingredients, among other things, all tossed in the garbage and denatured with bleach.

It came down to the fact that they didn’t have a piece of paper they were told all along they couldn’t get. There was nothing wrong with the establishment or the food,” Leverenz insists.

The Department of Health did not respond to interview requests, but in a joint statement with the Department of Business Affairs it told the WTTW-PBS show Chicago Tonight, Each business owner requires his or her own individual license … In terms of health and safety, the license ensures that each individual business meets the sanitation certification required to operate a food business.”

Act locally, think bureaucratically

Kitchen Chicago’s experience is not unusual in Chicago, or in any big city for that matter, where communication within and between government departments is often wanting. Moreover, licensing and health codes tend to lag behind new culinary movements and models. Pioneers of the trend toward local, sustainable eating find themselves pitted against a bureaucracy that is used to dealing with an industrialized food system.

I feel like there are very innovative entrepreneurs and very structured municipal departments that live in very different worlds and are trying to work together as best we can,” says Zina Murray of Logan Square Kitchen, one of the three shared kitchens in Chicago.

Lula Cafe, also in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, is nationally recognized for its local- and organic-focused seasonally changing menu. And like the shared kitchens, Lula became another victim of its own innovation last October, when health inspectors dumped 200 jars of preserved fruits and vegetables after they discovered the restaurant lacked a license to can. However, a Chicago canning license doesn’t even exist – modified atmosphere packaging” is something that usually happens in factories, and the Chicago health code doesn’t specify under what conditions it is permissible in restaurants.

The jarred roasted peppers, beets and stone fruits destroyed by the inspectors all came from local farmers. In light of Chicago’s short growing season, canning them allowed Lula to put its ethic of sustainability into practice.

A similar philosophy informs the growing trend of head-to-tail eating, which challenges chefs to use an entire animal rather than a few specific cuts of meat. This movement has also become a cause for concern among health officials, since small-scale charcutiers often try to stay off-the-books rather than going through a licensing process that can be lengthy, expensive and confusing.

Last December, state health inspectors decided to pay a visit to three of Rick Bayless’ restaurants on the basis of an article in the Chicago Reader, a local alt-weekly. Mike Sula’s The Charcuterie Underground” (November 25, 2009) mentions that Bayless shared a meat supplier with E&P Meats (not that he sourced from the off-the-books charcutiers themselves). But the Illinois Department of Agriculture found some bacon and headcheese that hadn’t received a stamp of approval from Illinois or federal authorities – the headcheese only had one from Wisconsin, whose inspections aren’t accepted across state lines. The meat was destroyed and Bayless fined.

It’s not that anybody did anything wrong, it’s that the health department just didn’t know how to handle the situation,” says chef Rob Levitt, owner of the locavore-friendly Chicago restaurant Mado, of the rash of food dumpings. With a lot of things chefs would like to be doing, [the city and state inspectors’] stance seems to be: because we don’t know anything about it, you can’t do it – rather than trying to work together and figure out how to make everybody happy.”

Food entrepreneurs’

An article on the Kitchen Chicago licensing flap caught the attention of Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), a group of Chicagoans dedicated to promoting urban food production. According to member Martha Boyd, the AUA will soon send out an open letter suggesting that the city create a working group to address the licensing issue, made up of officials from several departments as well as practitioners, just as it did for urban agriculture zoning. Our suggestion is to say, Here’s another example of a place where innovative business ideas and practices need departments to really think together about the best ways that the city can create and facilitate policy.’”

This is a really great time for all of us to work together,” she continues. Inspectors are used to a really different kind of business…Part of what we [the AUA and Chicago Food Policy Council] can offer is helping to recast the understanding of this stuff.”

Shared kitchens are poised to benefit from all this discussion. Leverenz and Murray are currently working with the departments of health and licensing to figure out a better way to address their business model – though according to Leverenz, It still feels like bit of standoff.”

The owners of the three shared kitchens have also sought support from their aldermen, and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) has offered to sponsor an ordinance for a new license.

I think that we need a food entrepreneurs’ license – something that licenses an entrepreneur rather than an establishment,” Murray says. She and Leverenz would like it to have a fee closer to the $250 required for a limited business license, since the food retail establishment license is way too expensive for a lot of little micro-enterprises to take on. We’re already seeing that happen in the last month– people being driven outside Chicago, back into their kitchens, or choosing not to start a business, because the fee is too high.”

Though the kitchen licensing issue seems close to being resolved, the city’s restaurants may have to wait longer before they can cure and can legally and easily. The current health code stands open to a broad range of interpretations, which only heightens restaurants’ vulnerability to fines and closure. One owner refused to speak for this article out of fear that it might attract more scrutiny from the health department.

Mostly restaurants like to stay off the radar,” Levitt says. There are lots of things I’d like to see done differently, but trying to change them would just raise a stink. I just want to be left alone to do my thing.”

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Robin Peterson is a former managing editor of the Chicago Weekly, an alternative weekly of Chicago’s South Side. Originally from Troy, Ohio, she attended the University of Chicago and is a former editorial intern at In These Times.
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