“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”
When it comes to getting started with your business, the hardest part is often taking that first leap and getting started. Once you do, though, it’s magical: you can literally deliver joy in a box to customers. It doesn’t hurt that you can make money doing what you’re passionate about, either: making and serving delicious food to your community.
As you get started, a strong foundation is crucial. Give your food business the best possible start with these tips:
Pick a Product
Arguably the most important step in starting a food business is deciding what food you’ll offer your customers. Choose something you love to make: your customers will be able to taste your passion for cooking and sharing delicious food experiences.
The most common types of food that home based food operators offer include:
- Baked goods: bread, pastries, low-acid fruit pies, cakes, cookies
- Candy: hard candies, chocolate, caramels
- Preserved goods: jams, jellies, pickles
- Condiments: honey, syrups, mustard, vinegars
- Snacks: granolas, pretzels, popcorn, nuts
Some counties may limit the types of food you can sell, though, so make sure to check with regulators before investing in ingredients. Cottage cooks tend to be allowed to sell “non-potentially hazardous foods,” which rules out items like meats, dairy products, cooked vegetables, and most foods that require refrigeration. When it comes to starting a home-based business, this is one of the most important steps.
Check Cottage Food Laws
In the United States, the FDA is in charge of ensuring that all food offered for sale in the country is safe and sanitary to eat. The exception to this rule, though, is cottage food or home-based food businesses. Per the FDA:
Under federal regulations at Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 1.227 (21 CFR 1.227), a private residence is not a “facility” and thus, is not required to be registered with FDA.
Each state — and more specifically, each county or municipality — has its own regulations pertaining to home-based food businesses. When you search for your local cottage food laws, you’ll likely find them listed on your local health department’s website, but you may have to pick up the phone to ensure that you’re in compliance. They may require a kitchen inspection, but typically the health department only inspects a cottage cook’s kitchen if a complaint is filed.
Cottage food laws regulate the types of food you can sell, the places you can sell, labeling, and even the amount of money you can make. Always check with your county or city health department to ensure that you understand and are following the law.
When you speak with your local cottage food regulators, you may be prompted to register your business. This is a requirement for businesses as a whole, not just your cottage food business. Certain states require cooks to take a food safety course, including Colorado and California.
Many local health departments issue cooks a certificate or license number once they’re registered. A business license also allows your local government to collect taxes on your home-based food business’ revenue. Learn more about legally running a cottage food business.
Build Your Brand
It’s never too early to start building your brand. When you think about the food businesses you admire, what comes to mind? Hopefully their tasty food does, but what about their packaging, logos, and online ordering experience? All of these components funnel into your overall brand.
Building your brand doesn’t have to take a lot of time or cost a lot of money. If you don’t have design skills, work with a freelancer to create a quick logo. If you don’t have someone who can design a logo for you, there are plenty of low-cost and fast options, like 99Designs or Upwork.
As you build your brand, consider these components:
- Your brand’s look and feel: What do you want your customers to feel when they see your products? Build a moodboard to represent those feelings.
- Your color palette: Review your moodboard and choose the colors that you see most commonly.
- Your logo: It’s not the only component of your brand, but it’s important.
- Your packaging: What are simple ways you can take your packaging to the next level? While you may not have a budget for fancy custom boxes, consider using paper fill in your brand’s colors or adding a custom sticker or handwritten note to your packages.
Think of ways you can surprise and delight your customers to keep them coming back, and incorporate those into your new brand.
Find the Right Sales Channel
We often see cooks launch their businesses online. We recommend building your social media presence as you build your brand, leaning on the power of social before you create a website. In fact, the product we’re building at Castiron can help you with that. In addition to social media, you may find that farmers’ markets and in-person, direct to consumer pop ups are effective sales channels for your business. Test a variety of channels to see which works best for your and your business goals. Learn how to grow your food business with Castiron.
Social media has made it especially easy for home cooks to share and promote their products — and for customers to share your products. Just remember that many states prohibit selling across state lines, meaning you can’t sell cookies to your mom’s friend in the next state over. In Illinois, for example, cottage food operations may only sell directly to the consumer at a farmers' market, on-farm, farm-stands, and at CSAs. Even if you don’t plan to ship your products, an online presence can help you reach customers who you may not have otherwise connected with.
States have different laws and regulations about where cottage cooks can sell their products. Some allow cooks to sell their products at restaurants or in a wholesale manner, but many do not. Many states limit homemade food sales to farmers’ markets, bake sales, and charity events.
Make Your Customers Your Marketers
Your business should be active on social media because that’s where your customers are — in fact, nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults are on social media. 74 percent of consumers identify word of mouth as a key influencer in their purchasing decisions, and social media can have a direct impact on that. One customer posting about your homemade sourdough bread on their Instagram Story could potentially lead to more sales and even more loyal customers!
The best way to get your customers to share on social media?
Ask them to.
It seems so simple, but if you don’t ask, they’re not as likely to share. Put your company’s Instagram handle on your packaging, or add a business card with your social media information into the box. When they do share, don’t leave them hanging — make sure to engage, respond back, and thank them for sharing.
Want even more tips for building and growing your food business? Watch this 20-minute video for a quick overview of how to create a foundation for your business.