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For years, Whisked! owner Jenna Huntsberger has been hunting for a bigger space to move into so she can grow her bakery business. Her salty oatmeal cookies and other treats are available at more than 200 local retail shops. After working in a shared space in Northeast D.C. since 2015, Huntsberger finally moved into her new digs earlier this month in Prince George’s County. To do so she had to ask the Maryland Department of Health to be more flexible than normal.
The whole process, from finding a landlord who would rent to Whisked! and securing an SBA loan to budgeting for construction after Huntsberger couldn’t secure a space that was already built out and ready to go, was emotionally trying. She finally found a 6,600-square-foot property in Capitol Heights and signed a lease in July.
Huntsberger was almost ready to move in and start baking when the global pandemic stopped her in her tracks. “We were waiting on our final inspections when COVID hit,” she says. “I spent a week anxiously calling the Maryland health inspector, who was unsure if she could do a pre-opening inspection because of the crisis.”
The health department initially said they weren’t comfortable sending inspectors out, according to Huntsberger. “I just put money into this building and we can’t use it,” she told the department. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m paying rent in two places.”
Huntsberger took to Facebook and asked what could be done to pressure the health department to create a workaround. “A woman from my old book club, who is now a state delegate for Maryland, told me to email her,” Huntsberger says. “Her chief of staff got back to me and said ‘We’ll contact the health department and see what we can do.’”
Another friend, an attorney in Seattle, had a connection to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s office. He put Huntsberger in touch with the governor’s former policy director to continue to apply pressure.
“I got a call back from the health inspector who said, ‘Wow, we’ve been getting all these emails about your business—we’ll try to figure something out.’”
Soon enough, the health department agreed to do its first ever pre-opening virtual health inspection. A representative from the department confirms this and says virtual inspections allow them to protect staff and the public.
“My contractor’s foreman walked around the kitchen with his phone [shooting video] so the inspector could see what it looks like,” Huntsberger explains. “We had a few things to fix.”
Once the repairs were made, Whisked! got the green light to start using the space. When the crisis is over, the health department could return for an in-person inspection. “For all inspections conducted virtually, the MDH may conduct follow-up inspections to verify items that could not be verified virtually,” the DOH representative says.
“I really appreciate the health department,” Huntsberger says. “The government typically isn’t able to be flexible. This is forcing everyone to rethink things.” Other businesses who are similarly situated now have the opportunity to move forward without waiting for the public health emergency to lift.
The new kitchen will help Whisked! grow as a business, especially because it has two ovens instead of one. “Calculating our Thanksgiving numbers, if I want to bake 9,000 pies it will only take us 24 hours,” Huntsberger says.