Most great ideas start small. That’s how Katie and Ben Reneker, founders of the Carmel Berry Company, started out, handcrafting small batches of syrups and cordials with elderberries or elderflowers wild harvested or grown on their small farm. My wife, Lisa Kivirist, and I caught up with her during a tour of the El Pajaro Community Development Corporation’s non-profit kitchen incubator in Watsonville, California, during a book tour for our latest book, Homemade for Sale. We’re always excited when incubator kitchens are started up, fostering and supporting the next generation of food micro-entrepreneurs.
“In 2014, we planted the elderberries to see if they would actually grow where we live,” says Katie Reneker, who resides with her husband and two young kids in Carmel Valley, California.
“We were able to harvest our first flowers and berries last year and began making and selling our Elderberry Syrup and Elderflower Cordial. They’ve been a huge hit, so we’ve been working with local farmers and learning to farm ourselves so that we can have enough plants to meet the demand.”
Like a growing number of food entrepreneurs around the country, they launched their food enterprise from their home kitchen, thanks to the California Homemade Food Act, one of the most comprehensive and entrepreneur-supportive laws of any state in the country. This “cottage food law” allows California residents to sell up to $50,000 worth of certain, state-approved, non-hazardous foods made right in their own kitchens.
Forrager.com has the most complete summary, state by state, of current laws, plus a way to connect with and learn from other Cottage Food Operators, or CFOs.
For Reneker, the cottage food laws in California were key to making her dream a reality. “Starting in a commercial kitchen is a much larger financial commitment — not only rent and extra training, but also a whole different set of pots and utensils approved for commercial kitchens. With the CFO license, I’ve been able to test the viability of my business without any of those costs.”
Using the highest quality, organic and locally sourced ingredients, Reneker transforms elderberries and elderflowers into a high-value, shelf-stable bottled product that does not require refrigeration. “We decided to keep our syrup light and fresh, with minimal processing. It’s yummy mixed into sparkling water or cocktails and desserts as well as taken straight.”
Raspberries or blueberries, they’re not. “You can’t eat elderberries raw unless you want a stomach ache as they contain a cyanide-like compound in the seeds,” she cautions about their toxicity when uncooked.
“I learned about elderberries looking for a natural remedy for the colds my children brought home from school. They’re super high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and other vitamins. But most elderberry products are made in Europe and I wanted a local option.” As it turns out, the native elderberries grow quite well in the Carmel Valley area.
“I use a hot-fill method, which means that I don’t have to water-bath can my products, saving me so much time,” explains Reneker, on her discovery of a way to streamline her processing. “As long as the empty glass bottles and my liquid are sufficiently hot and I’m using a lid lined with Plastisol, I can simply fill and screw on the lid. No more fishing around in pots of boiling water!”
She did have to do a bit of educating, when it came to secure the approval from her local health department, which in California (unlike many other states), is the governmental agency administering and enforcing the cottage food laws. “I needed to take a sample of this method to my health department since they had never had a Cottage Food Operator use it before,” admits Reneker.
“Plastisol lined lids are now available with most common jam/jelly type jars,” she adds. “I got mine from Ebottles and Fillmore Containers online which carry specialty bottles.”
“I wanted a bottle wide enough to show a beautiful label, and short enough that it would fit on a regular store shelf, and unique to catch one’s eye,” says Reneker. “I decided on the flask shape because it reminded me of an old apothecary bottle and as elderberries have been used in folk medicine for ages.”
“Now that I know that people like what I am making, I’m willing to invest in commercial kitchen costs,” admits Reneker about future plans. “There are only so many jars that fit on my kitchen counter, and only so many times I can fill a jar with a ladle and funnel without my arm falling off.”
“I’ll spend another year or two as a CFO,” she adds. “Then I’ll hopefully have learned how to fly well enough before I spread my wings and jump!”
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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