Parker

Over concerns of consumer health and wellness, cooking in one’s own home and selling those food products on the open market has long been prohibited across the United States. Talented bakers who wanted to sell their delicious pies and cakes directly to the public were often cast aside by the cost-prohibitive nature of gaining access to a commercial kitchen. As of the summer of 2011 however, that all changed.

The Washington State Legislature codified provisions that allowed “Cottage Food” chefs to cook their products in the confines of their own home kitchen for purpose of sale to the general public. Found under Chapter 69.22 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), the provisions for establishing a cottage food operation are established.[1] Although Washington State law on this matter is stricter than some other states, like Colorado, it still provides an opportunity for those who want to create food for sale to the public without the need for a commercial kitchen.

Before delving into the process of becoming a cottage chef, we will look to the limitations imposed by the statute. Under the law, gross sales may not exceed $15,000 annually. Although bills planned to amend the law by increasing the $15,000 limit were brought in 2013 and 2014, both died in the legislative process. Beyond the gross sales limitation, there are also limitations to the type of kitchens allowed. While those with their own kitchen in a single family home or apartment will likely be eligible, persons with only access to a community kitchen will not be granted a permit.

Additionally, the types of food permitted to be prepared and sold are limited. With an understandable aversion to food borne illness, the Washington State Legislature decided to restrict many types of food that are quickly perishable or require temperature control. This includes all types of meats, salsas, chocolate and fermented foods. This leaves for the cottage chef the options to produce all sorts of cakes, breads, cookies, and the like, along with jams, jellies, and preserves as defined under 21 CFR 150.[2] These may include such fresh, concentrated, frozen, or canned fruits as blackberries, blueberries, oranges, pineapples, tomatoes, and rhubarb among others. Additionally in the CFR provisions is an allowance of fruits to make an assortment of butters. The cottage chef may also make and sell a variety of cereals, tea, granola, herbs, and spices. However, during periods when the kitchen is being used for producing products intended for consumers, it may not be used for any personal cooking purpose. If getting into the food business from the confines of your own homes interests you, then continue on for a brief outline of the steps and procedures that will be required in order to get cookin’!

Pre-Application Measures

Now that you have decided you want to start a cottage food operation, the first step is to gather the requisite information and licenses to submit your application. First, you will need to determine whether your water source is acceptable. If you are connected to municipal water supply, you only need to provide a copy of your most recent water bill and you are good to go. However, if you are on a private water supply, such as a well, you will need to have your water tested by the local health department to ensure your water supply is potable.[3]

A food handler’s permit will also be required with your application. The cost of the card is ten dollars and can be obtained through your local health department.[4] Obtaining your food handler permit will involve a training session and exam, but the card is good throughout the state once issued and valid for a period of two years.

Next on the agenda is acquiring a business license.[5] Although this process may seem intimidating on its face, the nature and limits already imposed on the cottage food operations industry will quickly narrow the scope of potential business structures to choose from. In this case, the most simple and likely efficient choice would be a sole proprietorship. This route will impose the fewest restrictions on management of the company and will present few legal hurdles. It should be noted, however, that a sole proprietorship does not limit any liability the way that a corporation or LLC does, so you will be personally liable for any debts incurred by the company. Again, with the 15,000 gross sales limit, the benefits of the simplistic nature of a sole proprietorship generally tend to outweigh the risk of personal debt liability in this particular situation. Once you have received your business license, you are ready to move on to creating your business plan and application process.

Application & Business Plan

The application and business plan portion can be broken up into seven discrete subparts: Floor Plan, Recipes, Processing and Packaging, Labeling, Equipment, Cleaning and Sanitation, and finally Processing Dates and Sales Plan. The following will briefly work through each of the seven steps.

Floor Plan.[6] To begin, you will need to map out the kitchen in which you intend to create your food. On an 8” x 11” piece of paper, draft a diagram of your kitchen indicating where your equipment and appliances are located, where your personal pantry and cottage food pantry is located, a description of all surfaces (carpet in the kitchen area is not permitted), sanitizing area, and location for storage of finished product. Additionally, you will need to note where your restroom is located, and whether any children or animals are present in the home. No children or pets should be in the working area during any process.

Recipes. The first thing to mention is that if you are planning on using a coveted, secret family recipe, that recipe is going to become public information. Additionally, any recipe not included in your initial application will be required to be separately submitted for approval which will incur additional fees, so it is prudent to ensure your initial application has all recipes and variations thereof included. Each recipe must specifically and accurately include all approved ingredients and the specific quantities used. Once a recipe is approved, it may not be deviated from in any way without submitting approval for a separate recipe. Additionally, the name on your recipe must exactly match the name listed on your labeling.

Processing and Packaging. This step refers to how your product is being handled and stored. Include sterilization measures, how you plan to package the finished product and what materials will be used to package the finished product. Finally, describe the style of the labeling on the finished product and how it will be affixed to the packaging.

Labeling. Labeling must include the name and address of the business, the name of the product, all ingredients and allergen information, and the net weight or volume of the product. All labels must additionally state, in 11-point font, “Made in a home kitchen that has not been subject to standard inspection criteria.” In essence, the labeling requirements are parallel to those of the FDA labeling requirements minus the requirement for nutritional information.[7]

Equipment. A straightforward requirement, this merely dictates that you list all equipment that will be used in the process of creating your food products including utensils, pots and pans, KitchenAids, and the like.

Cleaning and Sanitation. You must describe in detail how all equipment and surfaces will be cleaned including what cleaning products will be used and at what frequency everything will be cleaned. A plan regarding how you will limit food allergens is also required. Don’t forget to include procedures for cleaning the restroom.

Processing Dates and Sales Plan. A schedule depicting when you plan to create your food products must be submitted with your application. Generally, this will mean what days you plan to work and during what hours cooking will commence. You should have a plan for the amount of each product you plan on producing during a given working schedule. In regards to the sales plan, list the ways in which you plan to sell your goods to the public, be it farmer’s markets or over the Internet. Beware, however, that selling to other retailers is prohibited – all sales must be directly to the consumer.

Home Inspection

Upon your application being submitted, the final step prior to approval is an in home inspection. This inspection ensures that all information provided in the application is accurate, and that your kitchen and equipment are in compliance with all stated standards. You want to be sure to pass this first inspection; otherwise you will be required to pay $125 for a follow-up inspection after you have corrected whatever issue found to be not in compliance. Once you have passed this final inspection, you will be issued your Cottage Food Operator’s Permit and be ready to get to work!

Although complying with all of these steps may seem daunting at first, it may be broken down into smaller portions and completed for less than $400 out the door. In a world where we are all becoming further removed from the food that ends up on the plate in front of us, it is wonderful to see new avenues opening for the consumer to obtain locally sourced and produced food. Although the $15,000 gross sales limit likely prohibits most from pursuing a cottage food operation as their sole source of income, it provides a great way to turn a hobby into a legitimate small business and spread happiness to your consumers. Talented bakers across the state now have a method of supplying their craft to the public at large. We can all hope that the future sees an expanding list of qualifying food products to open this opportunity up to a greater portion of the public.

For more information, visit: http://agr.wa.gov/FoodAnimal/CottageFoodOperation/ and http://forrager.com/law/washington/

[1] Chapter 69.22 RCW, http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=69.22&full=true#69.22.050

[2] Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 150, http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=150&showFR=1

[3] Washington State Local Health Departments, http://www.doh.wa.gov/AboutUs/PublicHealthSystem/LocalHealthJurisdictions

[4] Washington State Local Health Department Food Safety Contacts, http://www.doh.wa.gov/CommunityandEnvironment/Food/LocalFoodSafetyContacts

[5] State of Washington Business Licensing Service, http://bls.dor.wa.gov/index.aspx

[6] Example Floor Plan, http://agr.wa.gov/FoodAnimal/CottageFoodOperation/docs/FloorPlanSamples_Final.pdf

[7] FDA Food Labeling Guide, http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006828.htm

About the Student-Blogger:

Parker is a third year law student at Seattle University. His first job, when he was 14 years old, was helping his grandfather operate a fruit stand, Bill’s Fruits, at various farmer’s markets in the Seattle region. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring the various wineries of Woodinville with his wife Kiana, golfing, and snowboarding.