Caitlin Braam did not set out to sell cider from her garage.
But the pandemic scrapped or rewrote an awful lot of business plans, hers among them. So after launching Yonder Cider in January 2020, and tossing a plan for a Seattle tasting room, and a change in status to her residential street, and a few months of questions, applications and licensing, Braam started selling cans and bottles of cider from her garage last August.
She had a liquor license, and the Health Department didn’t mind, and hours were limited and the sales were to-go only; no alcohol consumption on site.
Still, one neighbor objected, filing repeated zoning complaints with the city. And last month, despite overwhelming support from other neighbors, Braam had to shut down the garage business she’d dubbed Yonder Bar.
The saga has prompted the Seattle City Council to pursue changes to the city’s thicket of zoning laws, tweaks that would make it easier, at least temporarily, for people to run businesses out of their homes or, in this case, their garage.
The proposed changes, which would be in effect for at least a year, would revoke four requirements that currently exist for home-based businesses: Customer visits would no longer need to be appointment only; home businesses could have more visible signage (one sign, unilluminated, about 2 feet by 2 feet); they could have more than one additional employee; and parking requirements would be eased.
Councilmember Dan Strauss, a sponsor of the bill, said there were potentially hundreds of businesses throughout the city in violation of the land use codes, and they’re all just one complaint away from having to shut down.
“I don’t want to tattle on them today,” Strauss said.
“This is really meant to ensure that we are supporting our entrepreneurs,” he said. “Some of the most successful businesses in this country, and in this world, started out of garages and we should be doing what we can to support them.”
To comply with requirements of the state Growth Management Act, the changes would be in effect for only one year, but the legislation also instructs city staff to draft legislation that could make the changes permanent.
“This one-year period will give us the opportunity to see what works and doesn’t work,” Strauss said.
Seattle already allows people to operate businesses out of their homes, but there are a barrage of requirements and exceptions.
A sampling, in addition to the ones that the bill would change: If you look at a house from outside, there should be no evidence of the business, save for a small sign (8 inches, square). But outdoor play areas for child care businesses are OK. Deliveries and pickups are limited to one per day, and none on weekends. You are free to get as many Amazon deliveries to your home as you wish, so long as they’re not for a business. No outdoor storage. You can keep your garden hose outdoors, but if the garden hose is for a home business, you can’t.
Councilmember Debora Juarez said she was concerned about home businesses being given an unfair leg up over businesses in commercial districts that have to pay commercial rent.
“Can I say ‘hey, good news, I can open up the driveway and sell fry bread,’ does that mean I can open a business in my driveway?” Juarez asked. “To compete with the small businesses and restaurants four blocks away?”
“You would not be able to operate fry bread or coffee out of your driveway, you would be able to operate it out of your garage,” Strauss responded.
But, he also said, just making these zoning changes would not likely clear the way for a flood of garage bistros. Health Department regulations remain. Food needs to be prepared in a commercial kitchen. And, in most cases, it will remain cheaper and more feasible to rent a space than to meet the specifications of a commercial kitchen in your home and garage. A bill that’s passed the state House, in Olympia, would establish a pilot program that would allow up to 100 permits, statewide, for people to prepare food for sale from home kitchens.
“The intent here is to help create the code changes for what is already existing,” Strauss said.
Ultimately, Juarez supported the bill, while Councilmember Alex Pedersen opposed it. Pedersen said he was concerned about effects on existing small businesses, increased traffic in neighborhoods and didn’t think the struggles of one small business warranted citywide land use changes.
The legislation passed out of committee 4-1 on Wednesday and could be approved by the full council Monday.
“Just sell it out of your garage”
When Braam launched Yonder Cider early last year, with staff hired, recipes in hand and a production facility in Wenatchee, the plan was to open a tasting room in Seattle to sell bottles and cans, attract customers and build a brand.
But early 2020 was an inauspicious time to launch a business.
The pandemic scrapped the tasting room. But the pandemic also spurred Seattle to ban cars from a bunch of residential streets, an effort to give pedestrians and cyclists more breathing room. One of those streets was the one in Greenwood, where Braam lives with her husband.
Suddenly, there were hundreds of people walking by each day.
“My father- in-law said as a joke, ‘well you should just sell out of your garage,'” Braam said.
She thought about it, then called the city and made her case. The Safe Streets program, which closed her street to all through traffic, meant there were more people walking down her residential-zoned street than were walking down commercial-zoned Greenwood Avenue, a block away.
“They said it is a bit of a gray area,” Braam recalled. She called the Health Department. There was no consumption on site and no cooking, so no problem there.
The state Liquor and Cannabis Board came by for a site visit. It notified the nearby churches and schools, who didn’t have a problem.
In August, “Yonder Bar” began selling four-packs and growlers, to-go only, out of Braam’s garage. The response was overwhelmingly positive. But one neighbor didn’t like it.
That person called the Health Department and the Liquor and Cannabis Board, both of which visited the site and, essentially, shrugged their shoulders. The neighbor filed a complaint with the city’s Department of Construction & Inspections, which regulates zoning.
“The garage/bar is located directly adjacent to the sidewalk in plain sight of every child nearby and blocking children from using the sidewalk,” the complainant wrote. “I am writing to demand that the City shut down this business immediately.” The complainant has asked the city that they remain anonymous and their name was redacted from a copy of the complaint, obtained through a public records request.
The city told Braam that in order to stay open, she’d have to comply with residential zoning regulations — take down her sign, restore the “required off street parking” that had been her garage and schedule sales by appointment only. That proved untenable and the “bar” shut down last month.
But, just last week, the city told Braam that Yonder Bar could reopen while the bill worked its way through the City Council process. The business has also firmed up plans to open a taproom in Ballard this summer.
“Yonder Bar made a big tasting room possible for us, we were able to build a business and gain a very, very vital source of direct to consumer revenue which allowed us to achieve our bigger goals, pandemic or not,” Braam said. “I can’t wait to walk to a business like mine.”