Milwaukee Edition

Launching a Kitchen-
Based Food Business 
from Home

Depending on the relatively new cottage food laws in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, home bakers, picklers and jammers can now launch a food business from their home kitchen and sell certain food products to neighbors and friends. The laws in question refer to “non-hazardous” food products, often defined as those that are high in acid with a low pH, like jams, jellies or pickles, or low in moisture, such as breads. Every state’s new cottage food law will specifically answer four key questions about home food production and sale: what products can be sold; where they can be sold; how they can be sold; and how much of each product can be sold.
    
“We have value-added products like salsas, spreads, pickles and jams,” says Erin Schneider, who, with her husband Rob McClure, operates Hilltop Community Farm, in LaValle, Wisconsin. They produce only high-acid food products with their organically grown crops. “Our black currant and honey jam is sold before we even make it. Rob has quite the following with his garlic dills.” They sell at a holiday farmers’ market and earn about $2,000 a year.

“I’m eager to encourage vendors who have products produced under the Illinois cottage food law,” says Roxanne Junge, market manager for the Glenview Farmers’ Market, in Glenview, Illinois. “The cottage food law is an awesome thing for people to get their foot in the door, try out a new product and sell it direct to their customers. It allows them to do this without investing too much money into the business before they’ve figured out what will sell. Eventually, many of them are able to take the next step to open a storefront or start an online sales business.”

“Being able to use our kitchen for the operation made our lives easier, and it gave us the opportunity to stay in business, as it lowered our costs considerably,” explains Blanca Berthier, co-owner of Mundo Verde, an Illinois company that has been making premium and amaranth granola since 2010. Berthier moved her operations from a The power of home-based productioncertified kitchen into her home after the Illinois cottage food law was passed in 2012. Thanks to the success of her products, Berthier expanded her operation beyond her home kitchen by using a commercial co-packer to manufacture the granola to her exacting specifications. By using the co-packer, her products can be sold at local grocery stores and by direct delivery.

“Your best research comes directly from your customers. Ask them what they like and make it,” advises Dorothy Stainbrook, owner of HeathGlen Farm & Kitchen, in Forest Lake, Minnesota. HeathGlen specializes in preserves, syrups and scrubs made from organic fruit harvested at Stainbrook’s farm. What started out of her farmhouse kitchen under Minnesota’s cottage food law exceeded the state’s sales cap, so she opted to build a commercial kitchen on-site to keep up with demand. Some food entrepreneurs choose to rent space in a community or incubator kitchen when they scale up.

Cottage foods and specialty food products are ultimately defined by their quality ingredients, distinctive flavors and taste. By meeting a seemingly insatiable appetite for more, these local, small batch food entrepreneurs are rebuilding a community food system. “We think it’s much more important to produce what grows well on our soil and then sell it, so that ecology drives economics, rather than the other way around,” says Schneider. “Paprika peppers, elderberries, hardy kiwi, garlic, pears, currants. These are the plants that are adapted here, and it’s our job as ecologically minded farmers to show how delicious these things can be, fresh or preserved.”

Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko are co-authors of Homemade For Sale, a how-to guide for launching a food business from a home kitchen. Beth Kregor is the director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship and a founding member of Chicago’s Street Vendors Justice Coalition.

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