Let Mass. home bakers do their thing

Patchwork of regulations make starting a business difficult

RETIRED SALON OWNER and daycare provider Marcia Donnelly did not want to fight City Hall. She just wanted to sell home-baked sourdough bread from her kitchen in Southbridge.

Homemade food businesses are common and easy to start in 48 states, and have become increasingly popular during COVID-19. Worried about global supply chains and general uncertainty, the pandemic has boosted demand for fresh, locally sourced products. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has resisted the trend, along with New Jersey. “It was a battle from the get-go to set up my business,” Donnelly says.

Just learning the law proved difficult. Unlike most states, which have one set of rules for all home bakers, Massachusetts requires special permission from local boards of health. The result is a patchwork of regulations that vary widely across 351 jurisdictions. “It was very frustrating and convoluted,” says Donnelly, a widow who raised one child alone after her longtime partner died.

When she finally found the right municipal department and arranged for a home inspection, she hit more hurdles. A city worker roamed through every room in Donnelly’s house and dinged her for a range of petty infractions, such as using a wooden rolling pin and storing flour in wooden cupboards. Commercial kitchens use stainless steel, and the inspector decided to enforce similar standards.

During the next visit, the inspector came back with her boss, who discovered new problems. He even flagged a freckle-sized chip in the laminate countertop near the sink and demanded a workaround. Feeling defeated, Donnelly decided to quit if she could not get a permit on her third try. Her startup costs were accumulating, and the venture was looking less and less profitable.

“You can’t just keep piling expenses on a loaf of bread and expect someone to pay $15,” she says.

Donnelly eventually prevailed, but others across the state have not been so fortunate. Boston University graduate student Andree Entezari could not even start the application process to sell homemade Persian-style fruit leather. His parents grew up with the cultural snack in Iran, and Entezari developed his own recipe for a side business when he lived in Los Angeles.

Like most other states, California welcomes “cottage food,” the industry term for homemade food sold at farmers markets, roadside stands, residential kitchens, and sometimes at retail outlets and online. Research from the nonprofit Institute for Justice shows growing support for cottage food nationwide.

Overall, 19 states and Washington, DC, have created or reformed their laws since 2015 without any public health or safety problems. But Entezari hit a snag when he moved to Boston. The city has no permitting process in place. Neither do hundreds of other municipalities across Massachusetts, including Cambridge.

Selling cottage foods in these jurisdictions could result in criminal convictions and fines of up to $100 per day. Selling the same products elsewhere—even one street over for vendors who live near municipal boundaries—could be legal. Unfortunately, finding an accurate list of no-go zones in Massachusetts is tricky because the state does not keep track. “People from the health department could not give me clear answers,” Entezari says.

Rather than give up, he launched a Change.org petition and reached out to Boston municipal leaders. One ally, at-large City Councilor Julia Mejia, raised the issue at a September 16 meeting. Entezari also has pushed Cambridge to explore zoning updates to allow cottage food sales. Meanwhile, the Institute for Justice is pushing for statewide reform.

Although Entezari remains engaged in these efforts, he found his own workaround in September, when he moved a few miles away to Somerville. His new city grants permits that allow cottage food producers to sell their products statewide. Entezari’s product will not change—only his ZIP code—but that makes all the difference in Massachusetts.

The economic benefits in jurisdictions that grant permits are significant. Cottage food laws allow people to buy and sell products safely in their own communities, and a nationwide survey from the Institute for Justice shows the strongest gains for women in rural areas with working-class income.

Meet the Author

Jessica Gandy

Attorney, Institute for Justice, Arlington, Virginia
Meet the Author

Daryl James

Writer, Institute for Justice, Arlington, Virginia
Massachusetts could use the boost during COVID-19. Homemade sourdough bread and fruit leather will not cure the pandemic, but good things happen when neighbors pull together and create local solutions.

Jessica Gandy is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.