WHEN TO LEAVE THE COTTAGE-Cottage food laws and when to leave the home kitchen for a commercial one

A little over a year ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Homemade Food Act (CHFA) into law. Otherwise known as cottage food laws, this act was to foster small food based businesses by allowing them to produce certain quantities of “non-hazardous” foods in one’s own home for retail sale.

The Chefs Center of California is all about fostering the creation and growth of small food based businesses and yet one might think we’d be wringing our hands at the notion of this option (one’s own home kitchen) competing with us. To the contrary, the California Homemade Food Act has provided an extra introductory step to success for food based entrepreneurs. Now a food based business can start in their home kitchen, get familiar with their own recipes, the introduction to becoming an entrepreneur and streamline their processes before taking the next step: a health and safety approved commercial kitchen, the kind provided by the Chefs Center of California.

When does one take the next step and “leave the cottage”?  Here are a few elements for you to consider:

“NON-HAZARDOUS”

You are excellent at baking bread of all varieties. Your baguettes should be tooling down the Champs Elysee in the basket of a bicycle. Your banana bread tastes like Aunt Millie was resurrected and put to work in the kitchen. And your pecan pie? Well, it’s just Home.

But what about an egg based macaron? What if someone orders 50 loaves of Challah? You know in the south, people call Challah “egg bread”. Simply put, the state of California considers dairy, meat and proteins in general to be potentially hazardous. Does this mean something with many eggs in it like Challah is potentially hazardous?

Renting a commercial kitchen immediately makes this a non-issue. Any kind of edible ingredient properly obtained, handled and prepared is welcome in a health and safety approved kitchen. Once you step out of the cottage, your occasional doubt about an ingredient will be eradicated and you will be able to give an immediate “yes” to the person ordering the once questionable item.

OPPORTUNITY

Like the Challah example above, a food entrepreneur needs to be ready when they make an impact and begin getting more orders. It happened to Rebecca Chang of Teri Teri catering, an artisan currently working at the Chefs Center.  She prepared a few items for a wedding and was approached at the reception about another gig. “Uh oh…” Chang said, “I needed a place to cook other things and I knew someone who referred me to the Chefs Center.  I have been here for two years.”

A health and safety approved kitchen ensures that caterers, retailers and other food entrepreneurs are ready to handle whatever opportunity they create for themselves.

Further, there are limits to how much money one can earn out of their homes via the CHFA. Right now in 2013, a home cook can earn up to $35,000 a year. By 2015, it will be raised to $50K. If one works hard enough to actually earn $35K, seems they would not want to be limited to only making that amount. Moving out of the cottage means the sky is the limit. Not only is this good for the entrepreneur, it is good for the economy and those around them. Most of the small businesses at the Chefs Center employ others.Napoleon’s Macarons employs a healthy total of 13 people who were once looking for work.

SANITY

The writer of this blog has worked a number of seasonal jobs that offered housing. That means I could never get away from work. I lived there. That’s just not healthy.

Not only does one need to get away from work, they also need to designate a particular place where they practice their mastery. These seem like the same thing, but they are not. A doctor needs an office, a musician needs a studio an athlete needs a gym and a cook needs a kitchen. If you are making money with a food product, hopefully you have plans to move into a space that is reserved specifically for this purpose; a space where you can forget about the dogs whining to be let out or the neighbor playing his AC/DC too loud, a place where your ambitions and expertise are given respect by others and, most importantly, yourself.

DEVELOPMENT

I like the safety and peace of my little galley kitchen. But any development I have ever done, any truth I have ever taken to heart, has been through interacting with others. On the job, on the way to the job and after the job, people who have the same ambitions or who are hired to support your ambitions are priceless elements to the success of a food based business. Techniques, job leads, labor or just a few good jokes are just a fraction of what can be offered by sharing a space in a kitchen incubator. I have even witnessed an employee of one business getting a ride from another business owner when his car broke down on the way to work. A kitchen incubator can be a solid community.

“I was impressed to see other chefs working so well together and respecting each other’s space and often times helping each other in a time of need whether they need a cup of milk to a pat of butter.” said Angela Garrott, owner of Bread Hot Mamma and Chefs Center artisan. “I had never used convection ovens before and that was awkward to me. I’m still not the greatest fan of them for my products, but I am not intimidated anymore by the Center, the equipment or the chefs that work there. There is a sense of camaraderie at the Center that I really respect. We all appreciate one another for what we do and respect them for it rightfully so. I’ve learned a great deal from everyone who works there and have even made friends and great connections.”

The second step of the Chefs Center 5 entrepreneurial steps is “hands on professional technical assistance while working in the kitchen.” That means for example, that while you can bake off a batch of three Challahs mentioned earlier, you may need a little help batching 50. The staff is there to help with that as well as give you advice on business plans, marketing and whatever else is required to get your food out there and revenue in your wallet.

Additionally, the Chefs Center offers regular seminars ranging from how to maximize one’s Yelp rating to how to get onto the shelves of Whole Foods Market. These popular seminars, offered to Chefs Center artisans, offer invaluable information of taking one’s business to the next level.

If you stay in the cottage, you may very well only be able to make $35,000 a year. But reaching out to the assistance and knowledge that’s out there for the taking gives any food entrepreneur the tools to go as far as they want with no limits.

SPEED AND CONVENIENCE

The Chefs Center has 6 full sized convection ovens and five still ovens in the main kitchen. Even if you have a nice Viking range at home, you’re still only going to be able to make so much in a designated amount of time. Access to a variety of professional grade appliances ensures you will be done in a timely, efficient manner. And like renting a house as opposed to owning, the landlord is responsible for the upkeep. This means if your home oven breaks, your business might come to a grinding halt. But in a commercial kitchen, the upkeep is the responsibility of the “landlord”. You will not be running the risk of forfeiting a contract due to faulty equipment. Additionally, cleaning supplies, garbage bags and three bay sinks are provided in many incubator kitchens, making life easier by leaps and bounds compared to clean up at the house.

Ultimately, you might already be home, but the work there might take twice, three times as long because of space and equipment limitations.

There are many, many benefits to the cottage laws. Where the Chefs Center and other shared use kitchens used to be the first step on the road to entrepreneurial success, now a home kitchen can be a step before it. But when the aspiring food entrepreneur, who wants to remain professional, legal and on the level, is ready to take the next step, a shared use kitchen such as the Chefs Center will be waiting with open arms to soothe any shudders of homesickness once he or she “leaves the cottage”.

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