Paula Deen, Martha Stewart and Mrs. Fields (of the cookie fame) all share a passion for food and chose careers in the kitchen. But their food business empires have a unique thing in common: each of them started right in their very own homes.
Food entrepreneurs are both young and old and come from various ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. They live in urban, suburban and rural places. All share a passion for the culinary arts. Many are drawn to the cottage food industry because they love cooking and love the autonomy that comes with minding their own business and being their own boss.
Of the 50 United States, 42 have cottage food laws in place, many that were passed after the Great Recession of 2007. These state-level laws, often referred to as ‘cottage food legislation‘ or ‘cottage food laws,’ have nothing to do with cottage cheese and everything to do with allowing you to sell certain food products to your neighbors and community.
By certain foods, the laws mean various ‘non-hazardous‘ food items, often defined as those that are high-acid, like pickles, or low-moisture, like breads. Because of this definition, some of the state cottage food laws have been nicknamed Pickle Bills, Cookie Bills or Bakery Bills on their journey to becoming laws.
While no one claims to have invented the term ‘cottage food,’ its meaning is clear. A cottage is a small, handcrafted, typically one-story-tall domicile designed with simplicity and modesty in mind. That definition forms the essence of these modern cottage food laws, enabling us to step away from the industrialized and factory-based food systems that engulf our world today toward a more authentic and tastier time filled with unique, homemade items from small food artisans.
At their heart, today’s cottage food laws allow us to do much more than just launch individual businesses. They provide the catalyst for transporting our society back to an era when everyone bought locally from trusted neighbors. In other words, they allow Americans to be what Americans have always been: enterprising, community-focused and hard-working.
Canada’s “cottage food” conundrum
In Canada, there are no national or provincial ‘cottage food laws‘ (nor are there any pending bills at the time of publishing). Generally speaking, if you live in Canada, under no circumstances can you produce food in your kitchen and sell it to the public — unless you’re a farmer.
“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency provides regulatory oversight with respect to many aspects of food and related products in Canada, including, for example, labeling and packaging requirements for these products,” explains Carly Dunster, a food lawyer with Carly Dunster Law, based in Ontario.
“The federal government has also passed new legislation entitled the Safe Food for Canadians Act, coming into force in 2015, that will consolidate a number of federal food laws and which demonstrates an increased emphasis on food safety at the federal level.
“It is conceivable that someone could create a commercial kitchen in their home, but the requirements are onerous, both in terms of just the physical infrastructure you would need and in terms of the zoning,” continues Dunster. “For example, you can’t operate a commercial kitchen out of your home unless your house is zoned commercially, which isn’t typical.”
The federal organization that regulates food is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but Dunster says the operation of a commercial kitchen would, in many ways, be governed by provincial and municipal regulations and public health agencies.
In specific cases — if you operate a farm, for example, and want to sell specific non-hazardous food items made in your home kitchen at a farmers’ market, community market, charity fair or similar “temporary food market” — your province may allow you to do so. Consult with your local health authority.
According to the Guideline for the Sale of Foods at Temporary Markets, April 2014, from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, an agency of its Provincial Health Services Authority, lower-risk foods prepared in home kitchens are allowed to be sold to the public at temporary markets, like farmers’ markets.
“We sell wood-fire-baked sourdough bread, plus syrups, sauces, salsa, both pressure and water bath-canned, all produced from our vegetables and fruits,” says Denise Cross of Mountain Valley Farm located in West Kelowna, British Columbia. She operates the “beyond organic” farm with her husband, Tom, and son, Brandon, making all their products in their farmhouse kitchen. “We sell all of the products at both our farm gate market and the local farmers’ market.”
“We’re determined to take it one step at a time, practice what we preach and share our belief in respecting ourselves and our environment with the next generation, our neighbours, our customers and our community,” adds Tom Cross. “Our goal is to invite, support and share with all who believe there is importance in real food.”
A similar exemption for farmers to sell value-added, non-hazardous foods at farmers’ markets exists for Ontario, as well. According to the Niagara Region Public Health, “A special exemption is provided at farmers’ markets to allow vendors to sell non-hazardous home prepared products. This exemption is not applicable to any other commercial facilities or events. The purpose of this exemption was to allow farmers at a farmers’ market to sell a variety of products made from their own produce or fruit (i.e., jams, jellies, pies).”
From ‘Buy Local’ to ‘Small Business Saturdays,’ from slow food to fancy food, from farm-to-fork to handmade artisan breads, more people than ever are demanding real food made by real people — not by machines in factories, the same way they make cars and computers.
The growth of farmers’ markets, specialty food products and farm-to-table restaurants that source their foods directly from farmers, fisherman or food artisans reflects this hunger for foods with ingredients we can pronounce, made by people who live at places we could visit, maybe even in our home town.
Cottage food enterprises address these growing trends, solving problems and meeting customer needs like few large corporations ever could. As a result, these micro-enterprises often have a competitive advantage — beyond minimal regulations of the cottage food laws themselves. Their small size, direct connection and responsiveness to customer needs and attentive detail to each and every product are beyond large food companies.