For years, Sharon Spatucci spent her pastry career as a baker for a big-box store, pumping out thousands of identical cakes every week. Seeking a more creative outlet that would allow her to craft her own specialty cakes, Spatucci in 2015 launched Sugarplum Studio, bringing cake-decorating parties and events to people’s homes.
Because Spatucci’s main gig had her working out of a commercial kitchen in Pennsauken, she was able to use the Camden County space in the off hours to make her baked goods for Sugarplum Studio. But when the facility shut down in 2016, Sugarplum was left without a home base—and Spatucci had to scramble to find a new commercial kitchen so that her business could keep running legally.
At the time, New Jersey was the only state in the country that banned bakers from—and fined them for—operating out of their homes if they were turning a profit, citing safety and cleanliness concerns. (Foods produced and sold to benefit a charity were not restricted in the same way.) But all that changed this fall, when the state’s Department of Health lifted its longtime ban on home bakers and other cottage-food industry producers—a change bakers across the state had been gunning for over the last several years.
“The whole baking business is on such thin margins already,” says Robert Peccola, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which was instrumental in getting the restrictions lifted. “The cost of a commercial kitchen was going to eviscerate any profit for most small-time bakers.”
Now, bakers can apply for a permit to make up to $50,000 a year creating sweets out of their home kitchens. The process includes provisions such as either submitting a water bill or having well water tested, submitting a certificate from a food-safety program manager, and paying a $100 annual fee.
For Spatucci, the timing couldn’t have been better. The year 2020 had been poised to be a huge growth period for Sugarplum Studio, but Spatucci saw the opposite happen as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Social-distancing restrictions and a smaller staff left Sugarplum Studio, which by then was operating out of a Cherry Hill shop, empty for the most part. During the pandemic, people were no longer welcoming outside parties into their homes, either. She shifted her business model to making take-home decorative kits, but it wasn’t enough to keep her space open, considering its $3,500 monthly rent.
Although the brick-and-mortar location will shut its doors on December 30, Spatucci can now continue her business at home. “This is my life’s work, and I worked so hard to get it to where it is,” says Spatucci, who—like many home bakers—also sees the benefit of having more flexibility by working from home. “The law passed at the perfect time, because I get to keep Sugarplum Studio alive.”
Newer to the baking industry is Isabella Bruno, a 2018 graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education who worked at Kara Kakes in Franklin Lakes for a year before starting her own specialty business, Cakes By Iz.
Bruno, who lives in Pompton Lakes, rented a kitchen in Fairfield through Culinary Concepts, a studio that offers time slots for those in need of a kitchen or party space. While she loved having a large kitchen to create her masterful, intricate cakes, bringing everything back and forth from her house to the studio and paying the space’s rent became difficult. Bruno would travel to Culinary Concepts a few times a week, with the trips taking a half-hour each way. “It just wasn’t ideal, bringing everything back and forth,” says Bruno. “The cost of the kitchen, too, especially as a new baker.”
Heading into the holidays, Bruno will now be able to do more advertising and expand her offerings, as she will be saving the money that had been going toward rent for the commercial kitchen. Her new menu items include hot chocolate bombs and cake push-pops, and cake flavors such as gingerbread.
The recent home bakers victory came after years of hard work from New Jersey’s vocal baking community, which culminated in a lawsuit filed in 2017 by the Institute for Justice and the New Jersey Home Bakers Association (NJHBA) alleging the restrictions violated the New Jersey Constitution, which “protects the right to pursue a chosen livelihood without arbitrary or oppressive governmental interference,” according to the institute.
Bakers wanted the chance to work from home for a variety of reasons, including the cost of commercial kitchens and the flexibility it provides—especially for those whose primary profession isn’t baking and/or who are taking care of children.
Peccola says that any health and safety concerns the state of New Jersey said it had “were completely undercut by the fact that the state allowed those same baked goods, if they’re sold for charity, to be perfectly fine” before the restrictions were overturned. The groups presented evidence in their case, including research from Thomas Montville, a food science professor at Rutgers University, that home baking is safe.
“You have a bigger chance of getting struck by lightning than getting sick from a home-baked good,” says Martha Rabello, cofounder of the NJHBA. “That’s an expert opinion.”
Rabello and the NJHBA have been advocating for home bakers for more than a decade in their fight to lift New Jersey’s restrictions. As a baker herself, Rabello’s cookie business was put on pause when she had children, so she knows firsthand how much of an impact the changes could make.
“I have been following [Rabello] and the New Jersey Home Bakers Association since I started baking,” says Bruno, of Cakes By Iz. “They’re great. They’re really the ones who did it all.”
Maggie Leenas is a Ringwood-based freelance writer who believes a balanced diet includes a cupcake in each hand.Click here to leave a comment