Update: After the Jersey City Times reported on the issue, Finkelstein’s Zoning Determination letter was approved by the city on Nov. 16.
“I am thrilled that the Zoning Division listened to reason and corrected its error,” Finkelstein said following the approval. “I hope they continue to approve Zoning Determination Letters for Jersey City home bakers who wish to pursue a cottage food operator permit from the state.”
Frustrated that Jersey City zoning officials seem to be flouting state regulations, a local attorney is threatening to sue if the city doesn’t approve a license that would allow him to sell his home-baked goods.
Harsimus Cove resident Rob Finkelstein has always had a knack for baking, but it wasn’t until graduating from the International Culinary Center in Manhattan in 2018 that he thought about turning his passion into a side hustle. A practicing attorney by day, Finkelstein completed nine months of five-hour classes three times a week to graduate from culinary school. After launching his food blog, Cinnamon Shtick, Finkelstein decided that he wanted to do more with his talent and start selling his baked treats to friends and family or at farmer’s markets.
New Jersey’s cottage food laws, which allow residents to sell food products that they make at home, have been in effect since October 2021. Despite the state being the last in the nation to pass such regulations, demand for which became widely popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, Finkelstein thought the process of obtaining a cottage food operator license would be a breeze, he told the Jersey City Times.
But three weeks after filing a Zoning Determination Letter application with the city’s Zoning Division, which is a requirement of obtaining the license, and “frustrating” back-and-forth with city staff, Finkelstein’s dream of selling his baked treats to the community has stalled.
Zoning officials denied Finkelstein’s application because they said it proposed selling food cooked at a residence “for commercial purposes,” which is not allowed under city code, according to e-mails obtained by the Jersey City Times.
“That’s explicitly what I said I’m not doing,” he said.
Cottage food operators can only make and sell foods that cannot go bad quickly and that don’t require refrigeration, such as baked goods, candy or nuts. Operators have to generate gross annual sales of less than $50,000 per year and cannot sell their food in wholesale or retail food establishments such as restaurants or bakeries, according to the state Department of Health. Commercial kitchens, on the other hand, do not have to worry about such requirements.
“I think what’s going on here is a lack of education or intentional ignorance. I don’t know what it is,” Finkelstein continued. “It’s so bizarre to me that I gave them the citation to the Department of Health regulations, I gave them a link to the website that explains it all, and it’s like we’re talking past each other.”
Mandy Coriston, a board member of the New Jersey Home Baker’s Association that was instrumental in getting the cottage food regulations approved in 2021, told the Jersey City Times that residents across the state face the same frustrations.
“One of the biggest struggles that we have had is with municipalities and one of the reasons for that is that there was no giant mass announcement that it’s now legal for people to sell the food they make at home,” she said.
While the cottage food regulations apply to the entire state, each of New Jersey’s 564 municipalities has different hoops that residents need to jump through to get their license, and there is not one blanket solution.
Finkelstein claims that his application with Jersey City satisfied all of the requirements needed, such as stating that there will be no evidence of home occupation, he will have no employees, he will not conduct retail sales and there will be minimal-to-no foot traffic.
The strong pushback from local municipalities is not something that Finkelstein or Coriston expected when the rules went into effect two years ago.
“When you get a new regulation put into place and it’s something that your state has never had before, there’s going to be some hiccups. And we expected that,” Coriston said. “What we didn’t expect was so much pushback from local municipalities. We didn’t expect there to be such a level of ignorance on what a cottage food operation is.”
Even if city zoning officials were unfamiliar with the somewhat new regulations, Finkelstein said that he handed all the necessary information to them “on a silver platter” and doesn’t understand the hold-up.
While baking is only a side gig for Finkelstein, the city’s response could cause other residents who want to sell their homemade goods with larger business goals in mind to be deterred, he said.
“If I can’t do this and they deny (my application), it will be okay, I’ll live. I have another career and I can continue to bake for my own enjoyment,” he said. “But to the extent that there are people out there who will maybe one day start a retail business and want to do this to really test the waters, that would be great for the city. It’s great for the economy. I don’t understand why the Zoning Division would want to prevent that from happening.”
As of Thursday, Finkelstein is still waiting for the Zoning Division to review his second application for a Zoning Determination Letter and if it is denied again, he will have no choice but to appeal or potentially take legal action against the city.
Representatives from the Zoning Division did not respond to requests for comment.
Photos: Credit Jade Martinez-Pogue