Home cooks have clearer path to food business

Like many home bakers dreaming of parlaying their talents into a business, Alpharetta resident Heike Sellers was encouraged by friends and family to tie on an apron and get to work.

“For quite a few years friends have been asking me, ‘Where can I buy this?’ ” she said.

But after researching licensing requirements, Sellers arrived at the conclusion formed by many hopeful home bakers before her: “Georgia is not conducive to small business in that way.”

That was before she discovered Georgia’s new cottage food regulations, which took effect in September.

Cottage food regulations allow individuals to prepare non-potentially hazardous foods in domestic kitchens for sale directly to the consumer. This means home bakers and cooks can now prepare products from a specified list, which includes items not requiring refrigeration like breads, cakes, pastries, seasoning mixes, cereals, nuts, vinegars and popcorn.

With the new regulations in place, the Georgia Department of Agriculture no longer requires home cooks preparing these items to have a second domestic kitchen or commercial kitchen space for production. Product labels, however, must contain a statement indicating that the goods have been prepared in a facility not subject to regular food safety inspections.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the regulations were developed after extensive research on such guidelines in states across the country. According to Black, the mission was twofold: the department had to “craft regulations to meet the needs of [their] public health responsibility” and to “find ways to help get people in business and help them stay in business.”

While his department was in the research phase, Black was contacted by Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), who had received a request from constituent and home baker Sara Rylander to consider a cottage food law in Georgia. Rylander was armed with a petition containing over 2,000 signatures, but she said, “It was not a fight. It was not a struggle. The Georgia Department of Agriculture was on board from the get-go.”

In fact, the Department of Agriculture supports the state’s agribusinesses through its Georgia Grown program, which was revamped and relaunched in January. It helps businesses market products produced in Georgia and provides educational programming, like the Georgia Grown Symposium held in Macon earlier this month. The Symposium offered workshops on licensing and inspections, marketing and packaging solutions appropriate for both cottage and commercial businesses.

Having recently discovered the new cottage food regulations, Griffin resident Happy Booker Johnson attended the Symposium to kick-start a business that will generate side income. Johnson, who plans to sell her original fish fry batter, learned that to be licensed, she has to attend a food safety certification course, have her kitchen inspected and her product labeling approved. She also used the opportunity to talk with farmers market managers about selling her batter, tentatively called “Drop, Shake and Sizzle,” since Cottage Food makers can only sell directly to the consumer and not to retailers.

According to Oscar Garrison, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Division, folks who are eager to get started can find the licensing application online (http://agr.georgia.gov/cottage-foods.aspx), pay the $100 annual licensing fee and have their kitchen inspected within two weeks.

But it may not be as easy as it sounds. Garrison warns that common mistakes new cottage food businesses make include failing to check with local municipalities about zoning laws and wastewater management concerns.

As it turns out, he’s right. Those in the trenches are finding that although the Department of Agriculture paved the way, not all counties currently have policies in place for granting business licenses to cottage food businesses. In some areas, zoning laws and sewer requirements are prohibitive.

Rylander, the voice of home bakers, is still unable to bake cakes out of her Cobb County residence. Yet, she hopes that after the first of the year, Cobb zoning laws will be reworded to allow her to launch her Totally Sweet Cakes business.

Rylander maintains a Georgia Cottage Food Law Facebook page where she and others communicate and help each other navigate the start-up process. She says she’s found that the “rural counties like Rockdale and Henry are very supportive.”

Sellers, who was finally able to act on the encouragement of friends and family, is an early success story of the new cottage food regulations. Her success in getting fully licensed and approved came as a result of her tenacity in dealing with city and county offices, her phone calls redirected from department to department as officials deciphered which regulations applied to cottage food businesses.

“It took a whole day of calling and talking to everybody from Environmental Compliance, the Public Works superintendent, the Department of Air and Wastewater, and Industrial Monitoring and Licensing,” she said.

“In the beginning when laws come out, let’s just say that things are not so polished.”

Yet she successfully navigated the process. Her business, The Flour Artisan, is open and taking orders.