When Danielle Robinson spent time at her grandmother’s house as a child, her cousins played video games while she hung out in the kitchen. She learned how to bake pound cakes and dinner rolls.
Today, Robinson, 45, is a baker in her Arlington Heights home, and her business is an ode to her grandmother: Dottie’s Kitchen.
“When I started, I was researching what options I would have. And, obviously, my goal is to ultimately have my own commercial kitchen space, whether it be retail or in a warehouse situation. But just the cost for someone starting out and not really wanting to take on a lot of debt didn’t make sense to me,” Robinson said.
Robinson decided to become a cottage food entrepreneur, the name for home cooks who formally register with local governments. Cottage foods are low-risk homemade foods — no meat or dairy, but pickles, jams and cookies — currently sold only at farmers markets. But state legislators passed a new Illinois law this spring that says entrepreneurs can, starting in January, do deliveries and direct sales to customers beyond farmers markets. Cottage food cooks will be able sell their products across the state without a $1,000 monthly sales cap.
With the new law, Robinson will retool her website and predicts her business will grow by 200%.
“I can just sell directly to [customers], whether it be delivery to pick-up, so it really just opens up that access to them year round,” Robinson said.
One of the jokes during the pandemic is about the soaring number of people who have taken up bread baking. The pandemic expedited people returning to the kitchen as sourdough starters or dusting off old family recipe cards. But budding home bakers in Illinois have faced a patchwork of different laws across county lines or town borders. Illinois has lagged behind other states on home-based food businesses, said Beth Kregor, director of Institute for Justice at the University of Chicago Law School.
Kregor recalls talking to a woman who wanted to sell bread from her front porch. “What could be more wholesome, more traditional? She used recipes that her grandmother had used who had sold loaves of bread to her neighbors. And she wanted to continue this tradition,” Kregor said. “Her neighbors wanted to be able to buy fresh bread from their neighbor’s front porch. But it wasn’t allowed and she could not convince the local government to pass a law allowing her to do that.”
Cottage food operators are supposed to register with their local health departments. In Chicago, only 22 cottage food operators have registered since 2017. But Kregor believes many operate around the state in secret because of the restrictions. That’s bound to change with the new law Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign.
“We think that flexibility will be great for the customers to be able to get those delicious homemade foods. And for the entrepreneurs to design their businesses in a way that makes sense,” Kregor said.
Karla Armour hopes it will help her. She is just starting to get La Matriz Bakery up and running out of her kitchen in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. On a summer morning, she prepares half blueberry, half orange cranberry cornbread.
Armour’s father is from the South and her mother is from Guyana. Her cooking is rooted in the Black diaspora.
“La Matriz is Spanish for the womb. Because I find that when you’re baking, there’s not a lot of noise. It’s a nice kind of quiet,” Armour said.
Scones are her specialty. Armour doesn’t have the money to rent a commercial kitchen.
“If I can at least work from home and do that slow build to the point where I can get into a rental kitchen,” Armour said.
And the new law is about more than entrepreneurship — it’s also about the environment.
“Greenhouse gas emissions in Illinois is from transportation. And the distance between where food is grown, and where it winds up being consumed, is an environmental concern if those distances are pretty great. And right now, they usually are,” said Eliot Clay of the Illinois Environmental Council. He said supporting cottage food bakers helps create food resiliency that doesn’t rely on one major food system — namely grocery stores.
The new law also gives bakers the opportunity to use buttercream icing, presumably for selling birthday and wedding cakes.
For Danielle Robinson that means customers can take a bite into a treat that she’s only been able to bake for family — red velvet cake with buttercream frosting.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.