SOMERVILLE — It all sounded so simple. Jessica, Jocelyn, and Janine Aston had a great idea. The three sisters, all in their 20s and raised in Saugus, have worked as nannies in the Boston area for years; among them, they’ve cared for dozens of kids, including 25 sets of twins. The kind of parents who employ these young women are the same kind of parents who’d be interested in feeding their little ones organic, wholesome, unadulterated baby food made from local ingredients. Those same parents, the Astons figured, might also appreciate the convenience of having this baby food delivered to their door a couple of times a week.
Thus was born the concept of Lil Foodie of Boston, the area’s first fresh organic baby food delivery service. Through Craigslist, the sisters teamed up with Seth Fernald, a Boston chef and father of now 8-month-old Olivia. Fernald, a native of Pepperell, was just as excited as the Astons about the business, both from a personal and a professional standpoint. The team proceeded to develop recipes, source environmentally friendly packaging, work with area farmers, and promote their products. They were even fortunate enough to have a licensed kitchen for the venture: The owners of Journeyman restaurant in Somerville, Fernald’s employers, were happy to have Lil Foodie use the restaurant for food preparation during the morning hours, when the space would otherwise sit idle. After a year of planning, the Astons and Fernald were ready to make their first delivery on a Wednesday afternoon in late October.
That’s when the strained carrots hit the fan.
“We got a phone call that same day, from the City of Boston, claiming we didn’t have a license and we weren’t ready to go,” says Fernald. Although the business is located in Somerville and therefore didn’t need Boston’s blessings to proceed, the group — flabbergasted at the sudden development — didn’t want to be in violation of any regulations. “We were not trying to fly under the radar and thought we had done what we were supposed to,” says Jessica Aston.
“We called Somerville immediately,” Fernald recalls. What happened next, he says, was “a bit of a runaround.”
At the crux of the city’s concerns was the Journeyman kitchen itself. It is licensed, of course, for restaurant use. But when it comes to running another food business out of the same space, things get a bit murky. “In Somerville, it is both unusual and complex to have two licensed establishments operating out of the same kitchen,” says Tom Champion, director of communications for the City of Somerville. “That’s especially true when one business is focused on serving a susceptible population, like infants or the elderly. It’s hard to separate one from the other, to understand and license each business in its own space.”
As Janine Aston understands it, much of the issue arose because of the nature of the business. “They felt like it was a higher-risk product, because you’re dealing with infants and children. These are uncharted waters; there’s nothing like this in Massachusetts.” (In their research, the sisters had identified similar businesses in other cities such as New York, Chicago, and Miami.)
The guidelines regarding food preparation for children, the elderly, and other susceptible populations are clear and well established; they are part of a state code that governs all food preparation. Cities and towns are in charge of enforcing the regulations locally.
The Lil Foodie team had had conversations with both local and state health officials. “We thought that we were all set,” says Janine. “I had been in touch with the state a couple of times, and they told me what I was doing was fine, but I guess that was not the case.”
The Astons’ experience is not an uncommon one. “Food start-ups face all kinds of challenges that other kinds of start-ups don’t,” says Rachel Greenberger, director of Food Sol, an “action tank” for food entrepreneurs at Babson College. There’s no school or course, she says, that teaches would-be food entrepreneurs about all the potential obstacles involved. “You’re learning as you’re doing,” says Greenberger, and as with any trial-and-error situation, there are bound to be a few errors. “I’m sure they had all the best intentions and stepped in a pothole without meaning to.”
Janine Aston says the effort to track down answers was sometimes frustrating. “There was no one I could reach out to, to ask where do I go? Who do I talk to? There were a bunch of numbers I called and people I talked to, and everyone would say ‘Talk to so-and-so’ or ‘Talk to so-and-so.’ You never end up getting a straight answer.”Continued...