Lisa Robins and Kari Clifford

Lisa Robins and Kari Clifford

Lisa Robins’ kitchen is a lively scene of flour, mixing bowls and her toddlers’ art projects. But the mother of two wouldn’t have it any other way at her home in Edmond north of Oklahoma City.

That’s because Robins and her friend, Kari Clifford, are hard at work filling gourmet cookie orders. The duo launched the enterprise, Baked Cookie Co., a few years ago after noticing the lack of quality cookies available in their hometown.

“Our friends would always ask us to bring our cookies to their special events,” Robins says. “So at a ladies’ night one night, we thought, ‘Why don’t we just make our cookies accessible to everyone on their special days?’” The next Valentine’s Day, they started selling four popular varieties: chocolate peanut butter, s’mores, chocolate chip with oatmeal, and chocolate chip with sea salt.

Until recently, the business would have been impossible in Oklahoma. All food sold for profit had to be produced in a commercial kitchen. That changed in 2013 with the passage of the Oklahoma Home Bakery Act.

The law allows for the sale of certain home-baked goods, commonly referred to as “cottage foods,” in certain venues. Unfortunately, the law includes some onerous rules and red tape. For example, cottage food businesses may generate no more than $20,000 in annual gross sales before being regulated as a commercial operation. With the cost of ingredients and supplies, this leaves little room for profit.

“We don’t use Crisco,” Robins says. “Our recipes include specialty chocolate and other high-end ingredients.” The partners also take pride in their packaging, using bakery boxes topped with beautiful ribbon.

The current law is also vague, inviting different interpretations from county to county. For some home bakers, this means buttercream icing is legal in some jurisdictions but not others. Such haphazard rules create confusion and limit entrepreneurs’ ability to scale up their businesses.

State Rep. Gary Mize, a Republican from Guthrie, has a solution that would help. House Bill 1032, which received unanimous support in the House Business and Commerce Committee on Feb. 24, would expand the types of homemade foods that can be sold and raise the annual sales cap to $125,000. At the same time, the bill would preserve basic requirements to protect public health and safety.

The proposal is one of at least eight food freedom bills moving through state legislatures nationwide, as part of a movement that has produced reforms in 19 states and Washington, D.C., since 2015. Research from the nonprofit Institute for Justice shows that women in low-income, rural communities benefit the most from these reforms.

Now in the wake of a global pandemic, which has left millions unemployed and working from home, the creation of flexible home-based businesses like home bakeries would provide a valuable source of income for Oklahomans.

As full-time moms to young kids, Robins and Clifford want to continue their operation as a fun, creative way to make money in their spare time. With the help of HB 1032, the possibilities for their cookie business would be even sweeter.

Melanie Benit is an activism associate and David Losson is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.