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.”
“It’s understandable that those trying to start a new business think of the regulatory process as obstructive,” says Champion. “In fact, there are very few people in the inspectional and regulatory world, and certainly not in Somerville, who are trying to stop you from starting something. But they have an important role to play in protecting the public interest and public safety.”
At any rate, it was clear the entrepreneurs needed to regroup outside the Journeyman kitchen. One possible direction they could have taken would have been to find a spot at a culinary incubator — a licensed, shared, commercial kitchen available to food start-ups at a reasonable cost. Champion says the city recommended a culinary incubator to the Lil Foodie team. But Fernald says that he was discouraged by the months-long wait list for space at a local incubator.
What the partners needed was a “shared-use kitchen” or “commissary kitchen,” and by plugging those terms into Google, they soon found a lead. Corinthian Hall, a function space in Melrose, was looking to turn its kitchen into a commissary. It was small and needed a few renovations, but with no regulatory obstacles to overcome, Lil Foodie was able to get the nod from Melrose within six days.
“It was just like opening up any other licensed food establishment,” says Ruth Clay, health director for the City of Melrose. By December, Lil Foodie was back on track and hoping to make its first deliveries later this month. A nine-pack of 4-ounce cups will be priced at $25, with no delivery charge. The food, brought to clients in a custom cooler with an ice pack, must be refrigerated immediately, so deliveries will be scheduled for early morning or evening to accommodate working parents.
Through the whole odyssey, the Astons and Fernald remained undaunted, with an unwavering belief in their product.
Today, Janine Aston is philosophical about those initial obstacles. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she says. “But I definitely say to myself, was there anything I could have known or should have known? I don’t know the answer to that.”
But she is sure of one thing: “There’s never a dull moment starting a business in Massachusetts — or anywhere.”
Lil Foodie of Boston