Bean pie baker Mubarakah Ibrahim at a meeting of the Board of Alders in December. Lucy Gellman Photo.
Small food businesses are about to get an economic leg up—thanks to the efforts of one of their own.
That person is Mubarakah Ibrahim, fitness coach, radio host, bean pie baker and owner of Mmmm Pies & Gourmet Desserts. Earlier this month, New Haven's Board of Alders passed an ordinance recognizing a new category of "micro food business," classified as a small food business that utilizes existing space within a commercial kitchen and brings in less than $250,000 annually.
In a change from previous policy (read more about that here), micro food businesses will pay a flat fee of $75 for use of commercial kitchen space, and operate on a prorated annual fee structure.
The law follows research and advocacy work that Ibrahim and several food justice advocates have been working on for almost a year. In summer 2018, Ibrahim drafted the language for the ordinance after becoming frustrated with policies that she saw as both prohibitively expensive and "redundant and cumbersome." She submitted it in September, then waited until a hearing in December, at which she learned that she would have to revise the language. She returned for a second hearing in March, and then a vote in April.
At the time she proposed the ordinance, she had already been running her business for a year, and was switching from a bakery's commercial kitchen (she declined to name the bakery) to a new location. While her first move into a commercial kitchen had gone relatively smoothly, the second one did not.
City departments seemed like they weren't communicating with each other. The process dragged on for weeks, then months. More than once, she watched as city employees called their supervisors because they "did not know what to do with me as a micro business."
"It seemed like nobody knew what to do with this," she said on a recent crossover of WNHH radio's "Mornings with Mubarakah" and "Kitchen Sync" programs. "And it was frustrating! Now, I am a very passionate person when it comes to business. But I could see how someone else with less passion and dedication could get frustrated and give up."
For her, she added, pursuing policy change was never just a matter of bean pies—it was a matter of economic equity. In particular, economic equity for women of color in New Haven, who may find themselves so frustrated with red tape that they give up on the process.
While drafting and researching language with Food Systems Policy Director Latha Swamy, Ibrahim discovered that the language around food service licenses had stayed largely the same for four decades—meaning that the economy had shifted while policy had not. While there were amendments for food trucks, no language existed for shared kitchen spaces or very small food businesses.
"There's not a lot of Black people who own food businesses in New Haven," Ibrahim said. "And a part of it is for access. Part of it is understanding the opportunity. And there seems to be this disconnect between Black people starting businesses and Black people growing businesses."
With new legislation on the books, she is hoping that will change. So is Swamy, who sees her role as "creating an enabling environment, so that these barriers ... don't get in the way of people who want to start businesses, especially food businesses, in New Haven."
During her support for the ordinance, Swamy researched other cities that have implemented similar policies. Because there are only 25 or so food systems policy directors in the United States—many in cities that implemented cottage food laws years ago—she found that there weren't many legal precedents for a micro-business law. (Connecticut just passed a cottage food law, meaning home cooks can now sell a limited quality of their foods commercially).
Except in Chicago, where there was an ordinance for shared kitchen operators on the books. In that ordinance, the city had created a tiered pricing structure for shared kitchens, and found a way to cut down on regulatory redundancy. It was exactly what Swamy had been looking for.
"I think it's such a great idea for creating that enabling environment," she said of the ordinance. "To also try to keep food business entrepreneurs here in New Haven, right? So if there is a lower— reduced barriers to entry, people might feel more comfortable staying here."
To listen to the crossover episode, click on or download the audio below. This article is part of the Arts Paper's content share with WNHH Community Radio and its longstanding news affiliate, the New Haven Independent.