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Thanks to cottage food laws, you can run your food business from home

Christina Marie Chambers runs Black Pearl Tarts from Union Market. (Jason Hornick for Express)

A decade ago, Christina Marie Chambers was working an office job in D.C. and hating every minute of it. She quit to work at the restaurant Poste, moved to San Francisco, and cycled between office and restaurant jobs before launching a side business making wedding cakes and desserts out of her apartment (and under the radar).

“It was fun and a little extra income but I wasn’t really pursuing it as a full-time gig,” says Chambers, 32.

That was until she moved back to D.C. about a year ago and launched Black Pearl Tarts, her sweet and savory tart business.

Chambers rents a rowhouse near the H Street Corridor, but having previously researched the laws and licenses that allow chefs to run food businesses out of their apartments or homes, she decided to go another route. She now rents commercial kitchen space at Union Market.

“I put the time and resources into making it the real deal,” she says.

If you’re a wizard in the kitchen or bake Pinterest-ready cakes, here’s what you need to know before launching a food business from home.

A cottage industry
So-called cottage food laws allow home chefs and bakers to run businesses out of their homes or apartments without needing special licenses or having to comply with food safety regulations. They vary from state to state and have restrictions: D.C.’s Cottage Food Act of 2013 allows low-risk foods to be made in a residential kitchen as long as the business doesn’t make more than $25,000 a year in sales. Home chefs and bakers must register with D.C.’s Cottage Food Business Registry and can only sell their products at farmers markets and other public events, with labels saying they were made by a cottage food business not subject to D.C.’s food safety regulations. (Food trucks operate under different laws.)

Maryland’s cottage food law is similar, covering low-risk products like certain baked goods (no meats or food that needs to be refrigerated), jams and jellies, hard candy and honey, and with the same revenue cap. Virginia’s law has no restriction on annual sales, except for pickles and honey.

“It’s a great way for folks to test out their product at market and see if they have a viable business and potential customers,” says Amy Crone, executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association. And the labeling rules ensure customers know when products were made in home kitchens that aren’t inspected, she adds.

John Woodcock — founder of Bakery Butler, an online order tracker for home bakers, and a former home baker operating under Virginia’s cottage food law — recommends checking with landlords or homeowners associations before launching a business. Some leases expressly prohibit running a home business in the apartment.

Leveling up
The best thing about running a food business from home is the low cost of overhead, Chambers says. But when a business outgrows the small footprint of an apartment kitchen or the cottage food sales restrictions, shared commercial kitchens offer an alternative.

“A lot of our members have come to us from either cottage or just at-home hobby baking,” says Maya Atlas, member development manager at Union Kitchen, which offers shared commercial kitchen space and other benefits. “They’re looking to shift away from that limiting model.”

There are no sales restrictions for food made in these shared commercial kitchens, or on what types of food can be made. Union Kitchen helps members get a business license by having D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Department of Health come twice a month to meet with members, conduct inspections and issue business licenses.

But with kitchen rental fees starting at $1,200 a month at Union Kitchen and $750 a month at local food incubator Mess Hall, the shared kitchen is an added expense for small food businesses.

“If home chefs have a product they can feasibly make out of the house, the cottage food route is a great idea,” Chambers says. “You can save a lot of money and invest back into your business. But I also see the need to take the risk and jump out there and make it a real thing.”

Al Goldberg, founder of Mess Hall, recommends that home chefs first refine their business concept and recipes, write a business plan, forecast profits and losses, and work on branding before applying for membership at a shared kitchen.

“All of that can be done out of someone’s home before they start paying us for anything,” he says.

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