Local food supporters rejoiced when the California Homemade Food Act took effect on January 1, 2013, allowing bakers, jam makers, and other "cottage food" producers to sell products made in their homes. For some, the cottage food law legitimized what they had already been doing, while for others it has provided an opportunity to explore passions and test the market with minimal investment. In Los Angeles County nearly 350 Cottage Food Operations (CFOs) have registered and obtained permits in the last year. These entrepreneurs are creating innovative products, learning the ins and outs of the food business, and strengthening their local food systems.
Los Feliz bread baker Mark Stambler received the county's permit in January 2013, which is fitting given that Stambler helped inspire and draft the cottage food bill with Assemblyman Mike Gatto. Stambler's story is by now well known. In 2011 a Los Angeles Times article about Stambler's homemade bread business led to a crackdown from the Department of Public Health. Stambler responded by becoming an activist on behalf of his own business and thousands of other existing and potential cottage food ventures across the state.
With permit in hand, Stambler has spent the past year rebuilding Pagnol Boulanger, not just baking the bread but also contending with the marketing side of running a business. Stores that carried his artisan loaves before the bust were no longer interested, and Stambler said he "didn't blame them, given the misery they went through with the health inspectors." Stambler said he is now happy to swap the "cachet of running a renegade illegal bakery," for a "legit operation that other businesses feel comfortable getting involved with." In addition to reaching out to new shop owners, he is exploring the world of online marketing and e-grocers.
As he eyes the growth of his business, Stambler is weighing the options — stay small in his current home kitchen, move to a commercial kitchen with its "soul-crushing" industrial atmosphere, or perhaps explore new live/work arrangements. After all that work getting permission to bake at home, how does he feel about yet another business hurdle? "It's never-ending but that's what this process was supposed to do," said Stambler. "The idea is you start the business at home and do it until you expand, until you run out of space. Cottage food is a way station. It's worked out well, given me an opportunity to think clearly about the future and what I want this business to become."
Many CFOs credit the cottage food law for helping them get started on a manageable scale. "I wanted to start small so I could learn as I go," said Wendy Osmundson of Granola Mama's Handmade. After retiring from a career as a make-up artist, the Silver Lake resident saw an opportunity to pursue her long-held dream of starting a food business. "I had been hearing about the cottage food law and it occurred to me that this might be my opportunity. I didn't have a lot of money to invest and paying for a commercial kitchen seemed very costly." Working from her home kitchen and selling at farmers' markets and events like Artisanal LA, Osmundson has been able to experiment with small batch, unusual granola flavors with names like Bangkok, Marrakesh, and Oaxaca. The response has been so positive that Osmundson is considering moving to a commercial kitchen soon.
The ability to keep costs down also appealed to mother-daughter team Julie Mooney and Margaret Greenwood, who make locally-sourced, seasonally inspired preserves under the name M. Greenwood Jams. "By not renting a commercial kitchen and not having other start-up costs, we were able to focus on getting high quality, local produce and developing flavor combinations that we're excited about," said Greenwood. "The cottage food act gave us an opportunity to take that first step, which could have otherwise seemed like a huge, daunting, scary leap." Greenwood is now moving the business from her mother's kitchen in Whittier to her new home in downtown L.A., eager to take advantage of what she said is L.A.'s friendlier business climate for cottage food operators.
As the founder of Artisanal LA seasonal shows and pop-up shops, Shawna Dawson has witnessed — and fostered — the evolution of local food ventures from underground operations to successful businesses. "California was really behind in cottage food laws so it's exciting to see the progression," she said. "With Artisanal LA we're trying to reduce barriers to entry while creating new opportunities for small food producers. Cottage food is another great stepping stone for people to test their products, get feedback, and create a viable business model before getting to the national, wholesale level."
Dawson believes the cottage food law has helped open up the market, inspiring entrepreneurs to go beyond baked goods and sweets and create new products like savory snacks, nut butters, and mustard. She supports expanding the list of Approved Cottage Foods, particularly in the realm of meat and dairy products. For example, "it would be amazing to see halloumi," she said.
Others are also hoping to see the law evolve. Policy Director Christina Oatfield managed the Sustainable Economies Law Center's campaign to enact the California Homemade Food Act and continues to track suggestions and feedback from CFOs. In addition to expanding the list of approved foods (popular suggestions include dried and fermented vegetables and more vinegar-based sauces), Oatfield would like to see fewer restrictions on indirect sales, meaning producers could sell to consumers, stores, and restaurants beyond their own county lines. "The intent was to boost local food systems but especially in urban areas like Los Angeles and the Bay Area, people would still consider products to be 'local' even if they're from a county or two over," she said.
Another area for improvement is clarification on whether CFOs are allowed to use produce from backyards, urban farmers, and community gardens. "The law is very ambiguous and we're hoping it will be addressed this year or next," said Oatfield. Cottage food operator Diane Trunk of NerdHaven FarmStand would welcome the opportunity to use homegrown produce in her caramels, candies, and other products. "My garden is what inspires me," said the Sherman Oaks resident and former lawyer. "I think the county is concerned that I could be passing off someone else's kumquats as my own but my motivation is to be able to use what I grow. I would like to be an official urban farm eventually."
It's that strong connection to local food, whether homegrown or sourced from nearby farms, that appeals to many CFOs and their customers. "When we are at farmers' markets and customers ask where we get our fruit, we are able to point across the row to the farmer who grew our strawberries, and then the next farmer who grows our citrus," said Greenwood. "It just makes sense to people when they are able to understand the whole process from who is growing to who is making the jam, and it's something that they are really able to connect with."
Thinking of starting a cottage food business? Here are some useful resources:
• LA County Public Health
• California Department of Public Health
• Sustainable Economies Law Center
• Cottage Food Law Facebook Group
• The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories - Clémence Gossett teaches a class on the Business of Food