Seattle City Council seeks to make it easier to run a business from your garage

Caitlin Braam launched Yonder Cider last year.  Then the pandemic came and forced them to adjust their business plans.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Caitlin Braam didn’t want to sell cider from her garage.

But the pandemic has scrapped or rewritten a lot of business plans, including theirs. So after the launch of Yonder Cider in January 2020, Braam accused a plan for a tasting room in Seattle and a status change on their residential street, as well as several months of questions, requests, and licenses. Last August, she started selling cans and bottles of cider from her garage.

She had an alcohol license and the health department didn’t mind, and the hours were limited and the sales were takeaway only; No alcohol consumption on site.

Even so, a neighbor protested and repeatedly lodged zoning complaints with the city. And last month, despite overwhelming support from other neighbors, Braam had to shut down the garage business she had named Yonder Bar.

The saga prompted the Seattle City Council to make changes to the thicket of the city’s zoning laws, changes that would make it easier for people, at least temporarily, to do business from their homes, or in this case, their garage.

The proposed changes, which would remain in place for at least a year, would remove four requirements that currently exist for home-based businesses: No longer having to make appointments with customers. Private companies could have more visible signage (a sign, unlit, about 2 feet by 2 feet); You could have more than one additional employee. and parking requirements would be relaxed.

Councilor Dan Strauss, a sponsor of the bill, said there may be hundreds of businesses across the city violating land use codes and that they are all just a complaint away from closing.

“I don’t want to bother you today,” said Strauss.

“This is really to make sure we support our entrepreneurs,” he said. “Some of the most successful companies in this country and the world have left their workshops and we should do everything we can to support them.”

To meet the requirements of the state’s Growth Management Act, the changes would only be in place for one year, but the legislation also instructs city officials to draft laws that could make the changes permanent.

“This one-year period gives us the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Strauss.

Seattle people can already do business from home, but there are a variety of requirements and exceptions.

A sample in addition to those that would change the bill: When you look at a house from the outside, there shouldn’t be any evidence of the business other than a small (8 inches, square) sign. But outdoor play areas for childcare companies are fine. Deliveries and collections are limited to one per day and none on the weekend. You are free to bring as many Amazon shipments to your home as you want, as long as they are not for a business. No outdoor storage. You can store your garden hose outdoors, but if the garden hose is for a home business, you cannot.

Councilor Debora Juarez said she was concerned that private companies are getting an unfair leg over businesses in business districts that have to pay commercial rent.

“Can I say, ‘Hey, good news, I can open the driveway and sell roast bread’. Does that mean I can open a business on my driveway?” Asked Juarez. “To compete with the small businesses and restaurants four blocks away?”

“You wouldn’t be able to fry bread or coffee from your driveway, you could operate it from your garage,” replied Strauss.

But he also said just making these zone changes probably wouldn’t pave the way for a flood of garage bistros. The Ministry of Health regulations remain in place. The food must be prepared in a commercial kitchen. For the most part, it remains cheaper and more practical to rent a space than meeting the specifications of a commercial kitchen in your home and garage. A bill passed at the State House in Olympia would set up a pilot program that would allow up to 100 statewide permits to prepare food for sale from your own kitchen.

“The intent here is to create the code changes for what is already there,” said Strauss.

Ultimately, Juarez supported the bill, while Councilor Alex Pedersen opposed it. Pedersen said he was concerned about the impact on existing small businesses, increased traffic in the neighborhood, and didn’t think one small business’s struggles justified changes in land use across the city.

The legislation was passed by the committee 4: 1 on Wednesday and was approved by the full council on Monday.

“Just sell it from your garage”

When Braam launched Yonder Cider with staff, recipes and a manufacturing facility in Wenatchee earlier last year, plans were made to open a tasting room in Seattle to sell bottles and cans, attract customers and build a brand.

However, early 2020 was an inconvenient time to start a business.

The pandemic scrapped the tasting room. However, the pandemic also spurred Seattle to ban cars from a number of residential streets to give pedestrians and cyclists more breathing space. One of those streets was the one in Greenwood, where Braam lives with her husband.

Suddenly hundreds of people passed by every day.

Caitlin Braam launched Yonder Cider last year. Then the pandemic came and forced them to adjust their business plans. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“My father-in-law was joking, ‘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 their street to all traffic, meant more people walking their street in residential areas than Greenwood Avenue in commercial zones a block away.

Clothing and other items for sale in the Yonder Bar. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Clothing and other items for sale in the Yonder Bar. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“You said it was a gray area,” recalled Braam. She called the health department. There was no on-site consumption and no cooking, so no problem.

The State Liquor and Cannabis Board stopped by for a visit. It notified the nearby churches and schools that they had no problem.

In August, Yonder Bar began selling four-packs and growlers to take away from Braam’s garage. The response was mostly positive. But a neighbor didn’t like it.

This person called the Health Department and the Liquor and Cannabis Board, both of whom visited the website and essentially shrugged. The neighbor filed a complaint with the city’s Department of Construction & Inspections, which regulates zoning.

“The garage / bar is right next to the sidewalk and is visible to every child in the vicinity. Children cannot use the sidewalk,” wrote the complainant. “I am writing to request that the city close this business immediately.” The complainant asked the city to remain anonymous and their name was removed from a copy of the complaint obtained through a request for public records.

The city told Braam that to stay open, it would have to comply with residential regulations – remove its sign, restore the “required off-street parking” that had been its garage, and only schedule sales by appointment. This proved untenable and the “bar” was closed last month.

But just last week, the city of Braam announced that the Yonder Bar could reopen while the bill worked its way through the city council process. The company has also finalized plans to open a taproom in Ballard this summer.

“Yonder Bar gave us a great tasting space. We were able to build a business and create a very, very important source of direct consumer revenue that enabled us to meet our bigger goals, whether pandemic or not,” Braam said. “I can’t wait to go to a store like mine.”