Matter of Pride
JOBLESS, TWICE DIVORCED AND left to care for a 13-year-old son, Linda Fisher was determined last year to fend for herself. "Even though my friends told me to give up my pride," she says, "I wasn't going to go on welfare." Instead she decided to peddle home-baked goods from a red Radio Flyer wagon she pulls seven miles door-to-door, five days a week, through the Baltimore suburb of Westminster. Selling as many as 12 dozen $1.25 muffins a day, she became such a local institution, Fisher, 48, says, that "a lot of people thought my real name was the Muffin Lady."
So it caused no small stir last January when officials from the Carroll County Health Department stopped her mid-route and ordered her to pack up her wagon. The reason: She lacked a department-approved commercial kitchen needed to obtain a $60 retail food-service license. Officials say it was a matter of public safety. "We had no idea what the conditions were in her home, where she was preparing her products," says health-department official Charles Zeleski. But Fisher was seething. "There are crack houses and prostitutes on corners," she says, "and the government comes after me."
Her customers—deprived for three weeks of blueberry, chocolate-chip and peach-cobbler muffins—were equally irate. "Here she was trying to keep her head above water, and bureaucratic red tape shut her down," says James Bangerd III, president of Westminster's volunteer fire department, who offered Fisher the use of his department's state-approved kitchen. "What we get in the form of morning pastries," says fireman Robert Cumberland, "more than pays her rent."
Though she must do all her baking in the wee hours of the morning, the spacious galley is a welcome change from the cramped kitchen of the government-subsidized townhouse she shares with Olivier, now 14, her son from her second marriage. Originally from Washington, Fisher came to Westminster in 1993 with third husband Ervin Fisher, a food-service manager at a local college, but they separated in 1995. Struggling financially despite child support, Fisher—who had been a professional baker for 17 years but couldn't find a local full-time job—decided to start selling muffins that were based on her deceased mother's pancake recipe.
She began dropping off baskets of muffins at local businesses and was so successful that by late last year she was grossing between $90 and $180 a day. "She could be the next Famous Amos," says Michael Fish, a Maryland business consultant. In fact her goals are more modest. Says Fisher: "I am simply trying to make a living."
ANDREW MARTON in Westminster