TRENTON, N.J. — Grace DeStefano has been fighting for the past seven years for her right to sell a homemade cake.
DeStefano is among a group of home bakers who have been battling since 2009 for New Jersey to catch up to almost every other state in having a cottage food law that would allow for them to join in a tradition that supporters say is as American as the apple pie they're not legally allowed to sell.
New Jersey and Wisconsin are the only two states that effectively ban the sale of home-baked goods. Opponents cite public health concerns and unfair competition against established businesses.
"A lot of people that I talk to want a small business and don't want to have to go and buy a storefront and get a factory," said DeStefano, 46, of Bedminster Township. "We just want something where we can put our foot in the door, do something on the side to make some extra income. We don't see it as direct competition."
The measure has passed in New Jersey's lower house twice, but Senate health and human services Chairman Sen. Joe Vitale has refused to bring up the measure for a vote.
Vitale said that's unlikely to change anytime soon.
He said that it's admirable that the home bakers want to "make some extra money and do the right thing, it's just there are public safety and public health concerns."
He also said it would be unfair to small mom-and-pop bake shops that now have to pay rent, insurance and employees.
"They're concerned at some level of being undermined by these home-baked products," Vitale said. "If the cap is $50,000, that's potentially $50,000 or some portion that's out of the bottom line of a small baker."
Republican Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, who introduced the measure, said that the businesses are working on such a small level and would be restricted in what they could sell — nothing that needs to be refrigerated, for instance — that he doesn't see them as competition.
"New Jersey is expensive enough. To give people an opportunity to supplement their income or pay their taxes, why not do it?" Bateman said. "I'm sure it's being done. Why not legalize it?"
Martha Rabello, 36, of Cranford, rents out space at commercial kitchens. She said that a cottage food law would help people get started out without having to either spend $15,000 or more to build a commercial kitchen or find a rental space, which she said costs about $20 per hour.
"That's a big investment; you don't have that leeway to try things," Rabello said. "This is a business that has a high failure rate. If you invest all that money and what you decided (to make) doesn't sell, you lose a lot more that if you had the ability to start at home."
The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin's rules in January and successfully fought restrictive cottage food laws in Minnesota. It recently has begun talking with the New Jersey group.
"All these home bakers want to be able to do is sell their goods at community events, farmers markets and directly to consumers," said Erica Smith, an attorney with the institute. "This is something that people have been doing in this country for hundreds of years. It's just an American tradition to sell to your neighbors."
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