Run a Cottage Food Business from Your Own Kitchen

Cottage food laws allow home-based food businesses to provide certain “safe” edibles to a limited clientele.

| February/March 2016

Nearly every state in the country now has cottage food laws on the books. These laws allow people to produce and sell certain “nonhazardous” food items made in their own home kitchens. Cottage food laws vary a lot by state — for a streamlined explanation of the cottage food laws in your state, visit Forrager. No matter where you live, answer the following four questions before you jump in.

What’s on the menu? Your state’s legislation will specifically outline the nonhazardous food items a cottage food business is allowed to sell. Generally, this list includes high-acid, canned food products (preserves, pickles and salsas) and low-moisture baked goods that don’t require refrigeration. Sometimes, the legislation will specifically itemize what you can and can’t sell, and it may even include candy or dry mixes. Focus on what you can legally make, and don’t waste time, energy and money spinning your wheels on what you can’t. Of course, you can always dedicate yourself to potentially changing your state’s laws to better meet your aspirations; many more-liberal laws came about because of such active citizenship.

Who are your customers? All cottage food laws allow direct sales to the public, and, in more than a dozen states, you can also sell products through indirect or wholesale channels, such as restaurants, specialty food shops and local cooperatives. You can (and should!) provide free samples of your products at a farmers market or another legal venue unless specifically prohibited at that site.

Where is your “store”? Each state’s cottage food laws dictate where you can sell your products. Farmers markets and special community events are among the most common venues. However, even if your state’s laws permit sales at a farmers market, that doesn’t mean the market must allow you to sell there. Some farmers markets have bylaws or rules that exclude cottage food enterprises. The states with the most venue options also usually allow direct orders, at-home pickups and mail orders.

Is there a sales limit? Most states have an annual gross sales cap on the products a cottage food business can sell. This refers to the maximum gross sales your cottage food operation can reach each year without upgrading to a commercial space — this number can range from $5,000 to $45,000. Some states have no sales cap at all but might have more requirements for regulatory oversight and inspection.

After you’ve answered these questions and you understand your state’s cottage food laws, you’ll need to figure out whether the edible item you have in mind is worth selling. If people are clamoring for your crusty artisan bread or sweet strawberry jam, then you’re off to a great start.

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