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Kneading The System: Mark Stambler's Cottage Food Crusade

Catherine Green |
December 11, 2011 | 4:20 p.m. PST

Deputy News Editor

Stambler prepares his baking boards for lumps of rye dough. (Catherine Green)
Stambler prepares his baking boards for lumps of rye dough. (Catherine Green)
Mark Stambler belongs in the kitchen. Inside his Los Feliz home, flour dusts the counters and floors of the charming sunlit room. Baskets and wrapping cloths are stacked and folded nearby, ready to welcome fresh loaves from the backyard brick oven he built himself.

“Now, I go at it with my hands,” Stambler says, thrusting them into a large Tupperware container of water and flour. Standing next to him as he works the dough, it’s clear this is a labor of love. It’s also one frowned upon by multiple levels of government.

Stambler has been baking his own bread since the 1970s. A year or so ago, the 58-year-old grantwriter tried to make a business venture out of his cherished hobby. But he soon came up against Los Angeles County’s strict health regulations that block homemade foods from reaching consumers. Higher up, state law requires producers to use commercial kitchens, banning the sale of foods made directly in-house.

According to HomebasedBaking.com, 31 states have enacted cottage food laws to make it easier for people to profit from the fruits of their foodie talents. California is not among them. Stambler has embarked on something of a crusade to change that.

He’s working with Assemblyman Mike Gatto, Northern California’s Sustainable Economies Law Center and Los Angeles Bread Bakers to introduce the appropriate legislation. But his determination to fix the system came only after losing patience with what he calls “regulation run amok.”

Business Is Booming

Stambler makes his bread simply, using just water, flour and salt. Family and friends rave over his loaves of rye and wheat, encouragement that pushed him to broaden his consumer base. Last year, he reached out to some local specialty shops. Chris Pollan at The Cheese Store of Silver Lake and Marta Teegan of Echo Park’s Cookbook agreed to start carrying his bread. Stambler said both owners knew full well at the start of their working relationships he was baking without the appropriate permits, in unapproved conditions.

Fresh from the oven Stambler handbuilt in his backyard. (Catherine Green)
Fresh from the oven Stambler handbuilt in his backyard. (Catherine Green)
Customers didn’t seem to mind; the stores regularly sold out of his product. At the height of his success, Stambler was baking 60 to 70 loaves a week to meet demand. The media took notice.

Jenn Garbee, a stringer for The Los Angeles Times, approached Stambler, eager to tell his story. But she and the breadmaker eventually came to an impasse over permission to print the names and locations of the stores carrying his loaves. Stambler had some reservations; he wanted to protect the small business owners who had given him a chance.

“If they shut me down, fine,” he said, recalling his thought process. “I’m taking a chance here, and I’m taking it on myself. But I don’t want to get anybody else in trouble.” Garbee pressed him, saying they owed it to readers to deliver the tips. The story wouldn’t run without them.

Stambler was not immune to the appeal of getting his 15 minutes. “I have to admit,” he said later, “the lure of being published in a major newspaper like this is kind of irresistible. And so with all these factors, I said ok.” The story would ultimately be Stambler’s downfall.

The print version of Garbee’s article ran in The Times’ Food section the first Thursday of June. That same afternoon, county health inspectors stopped by Cookbook and The Cheese Store, ransacking the inventories in search of the contraband bread and humiliating the owners.

Stambler said he was angry when he got the first panicked phone call from Teegan. “At heart, even though I knew this was a possibility, I also thought it was kind of a small possibility,” he said. “I never thought that the health department would get so exorcised about something like this.

“But that’s sort of the beginning of the story,” he said. Stambler laughed, but a hint of bitterness came through as he cupped his mug of coffee. He sat at a table inside his kitchen, where he’d grown his baking business from scratch before nearly losing it all in a regulatory nightmare. “It’s been going on since then.”

‘The House That Jack Built’

The following Tuesday, Stambler called the district bureau of the county’s department of public health. “I said, look, I want to work with you. I want to sell legitimately. What do I have to do?” he recalled. Inspector Karen Brown Franklin told him he just needed to find a bakery to sell his bread, and draft a written agreement that made it look like the facility’s staff was doing the baking.

Stambler thought he was in the clear. Department officials told him as much, just as long as wholesale transactions accounted for less than half of the bakery’s business each year. “I had a big rubber stamp made, I registered the name of my bread with the state,” he said. “I was ready to go.”

But the county’s Plan Check services curbed his ambitions. After slogging through a series of underlings and supervisors, Stambler was told the county doesn’t allow sharing of wholesale and retail operations in facilities. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re going into a thousand markets across the United States or you’re going to sell it at two stores in your community,” he said. The county still considered his small-scale operation wholesale, while the bakery was licensed as a retail business.

According to Stambler, L.A. is the only county in California with that rigid distinction. He ran into the same problem when he tried next to bake out of a friend’s catering kitchen.

Other home producers have sidestepped this roadblock by working in commercial kitchens. But according to Silver Lake-based preserver Carolyn Cooper, it’s an expensive arrangement, and one that only comes after jumping through government agency hoops.

“I don’t know if I can remember it fully or if I blocked it out on purpose,” Cooper said from beneath a cramped tent set up at Atwater Village’s Sunday farmers market. The 56-year-old decided to start her preserves business, Jam I Am, after falling in love with the process, the “art in a jar” she was able to give out to family and friends. It’s a passion that sustained her through the convoluted process of legitimizing her business.

Following protocol, or what she could make of it, Cooper applied for a business permit, filed and published a DBA (“doing business as”), secured a permit to sell at a farmers market after gaining approval from the Atwater Village location, and passed a food safety manager certificate course so she could use a certified commercial kitchen and earn a county health permit.

“It’s kind of like the house that Jack built,” she said. “You kind of have to work backwards.” Cooper now cooks out of Pasadena’s Chefs Center of California, an industrial kitchen used by several local start-up businesses, including food trucks and caterers.

But Cooper said the kitchen can get crowded. Its hours are limited, and for such a time-consuming process of making preserves, the rate can be a hefty financial burden. On top of the unforeseen costs of establishing her business, and the annual permit fees so she can offer free samples at the Jam I Am booth, Cooper has yet to break even. Luckily, she and most other home producers aren’t in it for the money.

Homefront Contamination

Stambler and Cooper have both been discouraged as they’ve tried to navigate the county’s confusing web of health regulations. And while Cooper, who holds a master’s in public health, said she can appreciate their concerns, Stambler said he thinks the rules are a little extreme for low-risk foods like bread.

Stambler shovels in the next batch. (Catherine Green)
Stambler shovels in the next batch. (Catherine Green)
“There’s nothing to go bad in bread if it’s just flour, water and salt,” he said. “My bread—bread that’s made in a very, very traditional way—you leave it out on a counter for a year and there won’t be any mold on it. It’ll be very stale, but you can still eat it and it won’t kill you.”

Bread falls into the county’s category of “non potentially hazardous foods,” joining granola, popcorn and nuts. In theory, these products should carry less of a risk for contamination or food-borne illness. But Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health in the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said that’s not necessarily the case.

“The standards for food production are that foods are produced so they’re wholesome and free of contamination,” he said during a November interview. “Rodent droppings in a loaf of bread are just as much a problem as improper food handling in other potentially hazardous foods.”

As for the county’s distinction between retail and wholesale regulations, Bellomo said different precautions must be taken as more end-point businesses enter the equation.

“The food handling techniques are very similar,” he said, “but the urgency to be able to contact all of the locations that may have received food product—that is certainly unique to the wholesale food processing industry.”

Coming from Bellomo, the county’s regulations sound straight out of a public health manual. But Stambler said officials he’s met with have been unable to show him in writing the exact rules against home production.

Stambler sees the problem as deeply ingrained in the layers of government overseeing food safety. “When you think about it, all the state guidelines for health really come down from the Food and Drug Administration,” he said. The agency’s national standards may not be appropriate for smaller networks.

“When it gets down to the community level, you have the same strictures in place that are supposed to govern immense wholesalers. They’re applying it to small businesses and it just doesn’t make any sense,” Stambler said. “It’s a matter of governance gone a little haywire here, and it really does have to be scaled back to fit the needs of the community.”

A Labor Of Love

Stambler expressed his frustrations publicly in follow-up articles after his run-in with the county. His complaints did not fall on deaf ears.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto personally reached out to the breadmaker, who had already started working with the Sustainable Economies Law Center to draw up legislation that would introduce cottage food laws in California. Gatto said during a recent phone interview he would have a bill ready to submit Jan. 5 when the legislature reconvenes.

“This bill should pass,” Gatto said. His voice strained on “should,” revealing a cautious optimism. “Certainly Sacramento has surprised me in the past, but this one makes sense. You’ve got the small business angle, the local products angle—and laws should make sense.”

But even if the state does enact a cottage food law, county departments will still be able to interpret the new rules as they see fit. Stambler knows the bill is just a piece of the puzzle in streamlining regulations to allow the sale of his homemade bread, but he said the fight is worth it.

“I would eventually like to open up a bakery,” he said. “I would like to bake bread for a living and I feel that right now, I’m being held back by the laws and the codes that are in place.”

Tools of the trade, inside Stambler's home kitchen. (Catherine Green)
Tools of the trade, inside Stambler's home kitchen. (Catherine Green)
He’s scaled back his baking since the county started keeping an eye on him. Stambler still supplies a community supported agriculture group, Silver Lake Farms, with about 13 loaves a week. The rest he gives out to family and friends.

On a recent Thursday, Stambler was back in his kitchen, mixing batches of dough to bake the next day. Once he had finished and cleaned up, washed the bowls and swiped off the counters, he settled back at the kitchen table to talk about why, after so much frustration, he continues to bake his bread.

“Just the flavor of it,” he said, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. “It’s wonderful stuff.” Even at its peak, Stambler’s breadbaking wasn’t terribly lucrative. But he said he would still try to make a career of it if state and county regulations allowed.

“Much as I love helping nonprofits raise money and govern themselves better,” he said, “I think as I move into that next phase of my life, it’s going to be devoted to breadbaking.”

For now, though, he’s focused on getting his cottage food bill passed. Gov. Jerry Brown will have the final say in whether he’ll be able to sell the bread he lovingly bakes.

Stambler said the governor has been unpredictable in the past, but if given the chance to plead his case personally, he’d let his loaves do the talking. “I’d say, Jerry—taste this.”

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