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New law allows home cooks to sell their culinary creations

Paty Hermosillo-Perkins bags Perk's Pollinators homemade granola at her home in Petaluma.

By BETH SCHLANKER / Press Democrat
Published: Monday, January 14, 2013 at 2:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2013 at 2:13 p.m.

Paty Hermosillo-Perkins thinks she may have a winner in her gluten-free granola.

But the beekeeper and retired kindergarten teacher from Petaluma voices uncertainty on whether she will take advantage of a new state law that allows entrepreneurs to legally make some food products at home.

“I'm realizing that I need to do a lot more research,” said Hermosillo-Perkins, who last year started a business making bee-wax body balms and other handmade care products. More recently she started packaging up her granola, which at times is made with honey from her bees.

The California Homemade Food Act allows small business operators to make relatively low-risk foods at home and sell them, a practice previously deemed illegal. The law took effect Jan. 1.

Supporters say the legislation allows entrepreneurs a new legal way to sell food products without renting expensive commercial kitchens.

“This law is going to make it a lot easier to get small businesses off the ground,” said Kelley Rajala, director of the Share Exchange, a Santa Rosa cooperative with a Fifth Street store that sells locally made goods.

Both food producers and a Sonoma County public health official said the law could bolster the local economy and help a county-backed effort to encourage more locally produced foods. However, some worried that home food makers will balk because of the accompanying rules imposed by local zoning and health officials.

In Sonoma County, for example, public health officials have ruled that home food makers can't ship their products via U.S. mail or carriers like UPS, a move that effectively rules out online sales. Some city planning departments, meanwhile, won't allow the food to be sold from homes.

“If you don't allow sales at home and you don't allow sales online, you don't have a lot of places to sell,” said Frederick Smith, a supporter of the law who gave a presentation on it Thursday night in Petaluma.

Under the law, business owners must register their “cottage food operations” with county health departments. Gross sales are limited to $35,000 this year, an amount that rises to $50,000 by 2015.

The state has released a list of approved foods, focusing on items that don't require refrigeration in order to prevent bacteria growth. The approved foods include such baked goods as breads and fruit pies, honey, nut mixes, dried fruits, cereals, vinegar and mustard. Jams and preserves are allowed but must comply with federal standards.

More than 30 states have similar homemade food laws.

The California legislation was co-written by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Silver Lake, who said he was prompted to act by a story of a constituent whose homemade bread business was shut down by local health officials.

Both food producers and the law's supporters said many entrepreneurs found the state's old rules too costly to follow for those wanting to make food items on a small scale.

Baker Dawn Zaft said if she had been forced to use a commercial kitchen, “there was no way I could have afforded to start my business.”

Instead, Zaft started her company, Criminal Baking, at home almost a year ago. Last fall she moved to a commercial kitchen and cafe, or “noshery,” on Sebastopol Avenue in Santa Rosa.

She expressed hope that both public officials and small food makers will work together to make the new law a success because food producers provide needed economic benefits to their communities.

“When I buy from a local farm, I'm not only supporting my business,” she said. “I'm supporting theirs.”

Efforts to encourage more locally produced foods have drawn support from county health officials, who last fall released a “healthy and sustainable food action plan.”

Peter Rumble, the health department's director of health policy, said the county appreciates the value of healthy local foods and the extra jobs they create, not only among food processors but elsewhere in the community.

“We see that the local food system is an economic engine for Sonoma County,” Rumble said.

However, some have questioned whether the county ban on shipping cottage food items by mail will help grow the food system. Sonoma County health officials also have decided that home food makers from other counties can't sell their products here.

“We want to start with a local program here in Sonoma County and really encourage that local business,” said Christine Sosko, interim director of the health department's environmental health unit. The county eventually may reconsider those rules, she said.

Christina Oatfield, policy director at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, said outside home food producers may be denied making indirect sales to the county's stores and restaurants, but they are legally entitled to conduct direct sales here.

“They should be able to do that anywhere in the state of California,” said Oatfield, who helped draft the law.

Smith, who spoke Thursday at the Petaluma Seed Bank to an audience that included Hermosillo-Perkins, said the law makes it less expensive for entrepreneurs to do research and development on new food products.

“It allows you to figure out how to get your business off the ground,” said Smith, a partner and chief operating officer for Forage Kitchen, a startup in San Francisco that hopes this year to open a shared-use kitchen and retail space.

Those who see their sales take off likely will move to the next step, he said, a commercial kitchen.

In the county, cottage food producers must pay an annual permit fee of $139. The cost is $347.50 for those also making indirect sales to stores and restaurants. Owners also are expected to check with their local community planning departments, obtain any needed businesses licenses and, for farmers markets, apply for temporary food facility permits.

The products must include labels stating the food was made in a home kitchen. Public health staff will make yearly inspections of home operations that make indirect sales. Those limited to direct sales aren't subject to routine inspections.

Hermosillo-Perkins said she will keep selling her Perk's Pollinators personal care products. But she may stop selling granola and wait to see how the home food law works out for other producers. She specifically wants to see whether the county will relax the rule on mail shipments of food.

The law is forcing her to think about how much time and money she is willing to spend on a home food business.

“If I go with this,” she said, “I have to really go with this.”

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