Unleash the Yeast: Unpacking Rhode Island’s New Cottage Food Law
Local food startups cheer the passing of Rhode Island's Cottage Food Law, but not everyone's hungry for home-kitchen-based business.
For years, customers would secretly drive up to Kara Donovan’s family home in Portsmouth at odd times throughout the day. They’d pull their cars into her driveway after placing orders with her through Instagram, Facebook or email, all paid through a locked cash box or Venmo. Then they’d retrieve mysterious packages on her porch for contactless pickup or wait for a quick handoff from Donovan, whose apron was often dusted with a fine white powder.
During the onset of COVID-19, Donovan operated her business on the sly. She felt she had no other choice. She was dealing in flour, butter and sugar. A home baker selling baked goods like cakes, cupcakes and decorated iced sugar cookies through her business, A Spoonful of Sugar, she operated out of her home, which was illegal at the time. She was not so different from many home bakers who took on sourdough bread-baking as a hobby during lockdown and shared the leavened wealth with their neighborhoods.
This past June, Rhode Island became the last state in the nation to pass a Cottage Food Law, which makes it legal for home bakers to create and sell shelf-stable food products made in their homes, as long as they go through food safety handler certification, obtain a license through the state and abide by certain rules such as a sales cap of $50,000 a year and a labeling requirement.
For nearly two years, Donovan was one of the strongest advocates for getting the bill passed at the state level. She started backing the Rhode Island Cottage Food Law after she believed someone anonymously reported her business to the Rhode Island Department of Health. She says another commercial-kitchen-based cookie business had slid into her direct messages on Instagram, threatening to turn her in “because I must be working from home because my prices were too low,” Donovan says. She dismissed the messages, but shortly after that, in late 2020, Donovan received a violation notice from RIDOH. This forced her to put a pause on her business until she could find a commercial kitchen space that she could afford to lease during the times she was available to work. At that point, the mother of four found a compliant space to lease, but she could only work for a few hours at a time while her kids were in school.
“All these years, I’ve been waiting, thinking someone is going to change this,” she says. “When I got the letter, I was like, that’s it, I’m going to change this. Who else is going to do it?”
A Spoonful of Sugar started innocently enough. Donovan sold birthday cakes and iced sugar cookies for showers, weddings and birthdays by word of mouth as a way to make extra money for her family on her own time. She launched her business when her children — now ages thirteen, eleven, eight and six — were babies, fitting the baking in at home when she could during nap times, after dinner and late at night while the kids were sleeping.
“It started by accident when I was pregnant with my third about eight years ago. I was an art major in school and I really like to bake, so when the kids had their birthdays, I started baking their cakes. Decorated sugar cookies were taking off back then,” Donovan says. “I wanted to learn how to do that, because I liked drawing and getting back to my roots. Everyone would ask, ‘Can you do that for me?’ and I was like ‘Why can’t I do that for you?’”
At the time, she was waitressing at night after her husband, a plumber, got home from work, because she had to be home with the kids during the day. They weren’t all in school yet and she says day care was too expensive for all three kids at the time. As her cake and cookie orders picked up, she was able to stop waitressing and worked from home.
“I started baking full time at home, of course, knowing I was doing the wrong thing but I felt like, what else could I do?” she says.
Donovan looked into incubator kitchens, but the cost and fees were too high for her to make it worthwhile for her business, she says. “That wasn’t an option either because I’d have to find somewhere to put the kids while I was at the incubator kitchen, and then COVID-19 hit and then I was like ‘Now what?’”
She worked odd hours to keep her business up and running. “It was tons of late nights and very early mornings,” she says. “It was really hard but I love it, so I made it work. That’s the thing — I feel like we were all fighting to do this thing that we love.”
After getting the violation letter in the mail — and at that point, tired of sneaking around — Donovan reached out to state representatives and senators in early 2021 to find out what it would take to bring the Cottage Food Law to Rhode Island as other states had done. Come to find out, Senator Alana DiMario, a Democrat who represents North Kingstown and Narragansett, had already sponsored a bill as part of a national focus on this issue from the Institute for Justice. “There was support that I didn’t even know was there,” Donovan says.
DiMario is a mom of three, co-chair of the Permanent Joint Legislative Commission on Child Care and supports new mothers through in-person and virtual new moms’ groups as well as through her private therapy practice. Her private practice and community groups help new mothers during transition periods like going back to work after having children. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom to three children, and DiMario grew up watching her try to make money doing odd jobs like sewing prom dresses, making Halloween costumes, stitching alterations and more.
“She didn’t have child care. She had three kids. We did not have a lot of money. She was a very talented seamstress. Now as an adult looking back, that’s why we had really great Christmases and why we were able to do extra things,” DiMario says. “She was able to use the skills that she had to help support us with little overhead. I think about people like Kara who have a very similar thing. You have little kids; child care is difficult, but you have a talent at something that you want to pursue. I think it’s really important that people are able to do the best that they can for themselves and their families. I think [the Cottage Food Law] is such a crucial avenue for people to be able to do that.”
DiMario spent a year and a half working on the bill with Donovan alongside Representative Terri-Denise Cortvriend, a Democrat who represents Middletown and Portsmouth and supported the bill in the House. They advised and consulted with Donovan and other advocates during the testimony period. They also picked up a few other Cottage Law advocates, including Josh Daly from the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and Jennifer McDonald, the assistant director of activism special projects at the Institute for Justice, who authored Ready to Roll: Nine Lessons from Ending Wisconsin’s Home Baking Ban, and Flour Power: How Cottage Food Entrepreneurs are Using Their Home Kitchens to Become Their Own Bosses. Adena “Bean” Marcelino of Black Beans PVD and Brian Leosz from Butterbang croissants also joined the fight by promoting the law on social media on behalf of all home bakers and encouraging others to testify or send in emails and letters of support to the Senate.
DiMario and Cortvriend teamed up to revise the bill. “This was something that was worked on all session long, so what it looked like at the beginning of the session was much improved by the end,” DiMario says. While the original bill already encompassed food safety manager training, improvements in the final budget article included, for example, a labeling requirement identifying the items as goods manufactured in a home kitchen that may contain allergens. There was also inclusion for extra funding for the Department of Health to oversee and regulate the law, which might include inspecting kitchens; and the sales cap was raised from $25,000 to $50,000. “The feedback we got from advocates, both locally and also just looking around at what other states do, really informed the discussion,” DiMario says.
The RI Cottage Food Law passed at the end of June as a part of the budget, and the Department of Health is getting its website up and running to detail the licensing process. Nov. 1 is the target date to finalize the regulations and roll out an online application process. One of the final steps in the process was a thirty-day public comment period in the first weeks of September.
Previously, only farmers were allowed to sell homemade foods created with ingredients grown on-site. The new law allows Rhode Island residents to sell up to $50,000 of shelf-stable baked goods annually after obtaining a $65 yearly license from the Department of Health (the food safety handlers certification course is available online and costs $15).
“I have to credit the people in the governor’s office who were great about listening to the advocates, looking around and doing research on what other states have done and were willing to make some changes,” DiMario says. “We were also able to make sure that the food safety certification course that people who get this license have to take is something that’s accessible financially and from a logistical access standpoint.”
Donovan is thrilled and plans to return to baking in her kitchen once the Cottage Law is enacted in November.
“I’m just happy to run my business without feeling like I am dealing drugs out the back door,” Donovan says. “I’m lucky because all my neighbors know what I do and they all appreciate it but I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I was trying to hide it from them.”
For Adena “Bean” Marcelino, the cottage food law is all about equity. While she already runs a successful food business, Black Beans PVD, she more recently gained access to a commercial kitchen and will run a full service dine-in restaurant through a partnership with the Southside Community Land Trust’s new center in Providence. She says the lease is much less than the cost of renting an apartment in the West End, which will allow her to pay staff equitably and also set reasonable menu pricing.
When she learned that families in the West End and South Side were cooking and selling baked goods like bread and homecooked meals out of their homes during the pandemic, she started advocating for the Rhode Island Cottage Food Law. She testified multiple times at the State House and encouraged citizens to submit their own testimonies through in-person appearances, emails and letters. Marcelino also joined the Rhode Island Food Policy Council to support passage of the Cottage Food Law. While the current law only allows for baking and selling shelf-stable baked goods, she hopes for more changes in the future.
“When the pandemic hit, I saw — which I am sure everyone saw on social media — people who lost their jobs and were selling food out of their houses, just trying to survive and find a way to support their family,” Marcelino says.
Supporting the bill is also about affordable access to home-cooked meals, she says. “For someone like me, I was working for myself and working a full-time job. Our options are usually to eat from a large corporation-owned restaurant or meals from friends or neighbors or someone in the community,” Marcelino says. “I found myself being fed by people in the community, who like to cook, but may not have access to money to go into a commercial kitchen or have the connections to open a restaurant, but they still need the money.
“They cook for me at home any other day, what’s the difference between me giving them $10 for doing it this time?” she says.
Marcelino previously worked as a drug counselor, case manager and homeless advocate for thirteen years before leaving six years ago to pursue cooking in kitchens
and eventual restaurant ownership. She got into hospitality by cooking at home for fun, and friends and family began asking her for soul food and regional comfort food meals for baby showers, funerals and birthday parties. “People would buy the ingredients and I would cook, and they’d be like let me give you a little bit of money,” she says. “I said OK, this is profitable, I could make money doing this and I like it, so why not start a business?”
One of the main reasons Marcelino got into home cooking and started Black Beans PVD three years ago as a side hustle was because she says there weren’t many Black-owned restaurants to rely on for catering large events. “Most of the people that we get to feed us for big events feed us from their homes,” she says. “If it’s going to happen anyway, why not allow it to be an extension of someone’s finances and happiness?”
Marcelino says the financial investment she would have had to have made to work in a commercial kitchen was almost as much as she previously spent on housing. “For me to do fifteen hours of cooking/service, it would have cost over $600 a month, not including food costs, insurance or internet or website costs,” she says.
She thinks forgoing the commercial kitchen cost would allow people like grandmothers who watch their grandchildren as well as single mothers to make extra income to help send kids to college. “To create a whole community of people who are going to be somewhat empowered is important, specifically because I know Cottage Food Law will greatly impact the lives of BIPOC communities, women of color, immigrant communities, specifically single moms like myself to be able to take care of their family,” Marcelino says.