'Bummed': Health department shuts down 11-year-old's cupcake business

News-DemocratJanuary 28, 2014 

— Heather Stirling is trying hard to make lemonade out of lemons.

When the Madison County Health Department called Monday and said the cupcake business run by her 11-year-old daughter, Chloe Stirling, wasn't certified and needed to shut down, Chloe's mother tried to make the best of it.

"If nothing else, this is a good business lesson," Heather said Tuesday. "The cupcakes are on hold, and while I hate to have her learn all this at 11, I know she wants to have her own bakery someday and she needs to do things the right way."

Meanwhile, Chloe is "bummed that I can't make cakes for a while."

For the past two years, she has been making cakes and cupcakes out of the family kitchen, mostly for friends, relatives and fundraisers. She has had some paying customers, though, and the sixth-grader at Triad Middle School has been banking about $80 a week, Heather said.

When a News-Democrat story appeared Sunday in the BND magazine about Chloe's baking talent, she got a lot of attention, Heather said. Almost all of it was positive.

"We got so many emails and messages on Facebook, and they were wonderful," said Heather. She also got some additional orders for cupcakes.

That's all stopped right now, though. On Monday morning, Heather got a call from the County Health Department and was told Chloe had to stop her business, which she called Hey, Cupcake!, because she didn't work out of a certified kitchen and was selling to the public.

Chloe said she understands what's going on: "Sort of. I don't have a business license and stuff like that."

Mary Cooper, the county's environmental health services manager, ended up the bad guy, though that was never her intention. She was just doing her job.

"I have grandkids myself. I understand," Cooper said Tuesday afternoon, after being deluged by "a lot of terrible emails and (being) called names."

But, said Cooper, "it doesn't matter what your age is, there are rules and regulations, not just here in Madison County. If someone is baking at home (and selling to the public), they have to be inspected and have a permit."

Amy Yeager, public information officer for the Health Department, said Chloe's business came to the attention of the agency when a woman who had hoped to make wedding cakes out of her home called and wondered, after seeing the newspaper story, if the rules had changed.

The answer was simple: No.

"This is a clear-cut thing," said Yeager. Basically, there is the Illinois State Food Sanitation Code and part of it sets out specific rules and regulations for selling and distributing food to the general public. Every county in the state must enforce that state code.

Some of those rules include working in a kitchen that meets certain safety and health requirements. For example, if you want to work out of your home and run a food business, that kitchen must be completely separate from any other kitchen there. It also must contain equipment and supplies that meet state regulations. It has to be inspected and a permit must be issued.

Chloe had none of those things going for her.

Cooper said she can create a second kitchen in her home for baking. Heather said the family is considering that, and Cooper said the agency is more than willing to work with the Stirlings to help them meet the rules.

The young baker also could find a licensed kitchen, such as in a church or hall, in which to bake.

Even there, though, Cooper said she would have to be inspected to make sure she was following regulations regarding, for example, hand-washing and glove-wearing.

Sharon Valentine, environmental health manager with the St. Clair County Health Department, says the same thing would have happened to Chloe in her county.

"If we let one person do it, how can we tell the person with 30 cats in their home that they can't do it? A line has to be drawn."

Yeager, in Madison County, said it all comes down to the agency's job description.

"We have an obligation to protect the general public's health."

Heather says she gets it.

"They have a job to do and that's what they're doing," she said, adding that she wants people to stop the negative comments and calls to the health department staff. "I don't like that."

As a parent, she and husband Chad and daughter Sophia, 8, are just waiting for the flurry of attention to die down. A TV crew was on its way not long after Chloe got home from school Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Heather will continue to show her daughter how to remain positive.

"This will work out. I will work it out. It's my kid's dream."

Contact reporter Suzanne Boyle at 239-2664 or sboyle@bnd.com.

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