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Why Cottage Food Laws Matter

A few months ago, I moved from California to Massachusetts with my car, a trailer, and all of my belongings. Now that I’ve settled into my new apartment in my new state, I started exploring ways to sell my homemade chocolate fudge at local farmers markets this summer. This post will give you an inside look at the process I took and what you may need to be prepared for in the early days of starting a cottage food operation.

Pick Up The Phone

Most states created their cottage food law after 2006, but Massachusetts is different in that their law for “residential kitchens” hasn’t changed since 2000. In some ways, MA’s law is superior in that it doesn’t have the limitations often seen in a modern cottage food law. However, unlike most cottage food laws, their law was not structured to make it easy for someone to start.

I hadn’t fully researched MA’s law since 2012, so I researched it again to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I scoured the internet for any and all resources I could find, and over the course of about 5 hours, I compiled a fairly comprehensive update to that law page.

Although I was very familiar with the law, I started my food business the same way I recommend all CFOs start: by calling the health (or ag) department. Fortunately they were very responsive (some are not), and within 10 minutes, I had more relevant information in my hands than those 5 hours of research had produced. This is because every region is different, and much of the info about my town is not available online, which is typical of many government departments. They sent me some documents via email that I could never have acquired without contacting them directly.

I’d still encourage you to become familiar with your cottage food law beforehand so that you know what’s possible — often staff at the departments won’t be very familiar themselves. However, usually there is no replacement for contacting your local government agencies when getting started.

The Danger Zone

Once I had some info from the health department and had confirmed that they do allow residential kitchens in my town, I then contacted the planning department to check zoning laws. Zoning laws exist to ensure that residential and business environments stay separate — for instance, if someone were allowed to run a burger joint from home, most neighbors wouldn’t appreciate the owner putting up signs to advertise, dramatically increasing the car traffic, and possibly even making the neighborhood always smell like burgers. Zoning laws prevent this from happening, and occasionally they can and will ban all home businesses.

When I spoke with the lady at the planning department, I learned that my town does allow residential kitchens to get a home occupation permit, but the process for getting approved takes over three months! The process goes something like this: 1) I submit an application, 2) the town’s board of appeals accepts the application at their next weekly meeting, 3) the business gets advertised in the local paper for 30 days, 4) the town then gets 30 days to submit complaints about the new business, 5) if no complaints are submitted, the board of appeals debates a number of issues concerning the business and makes a decision, 6) the board writes up a 2,000-word report analyzing the business, the facts, their opinion, and their decision, 7) the town gets a 20 day appeal period, during which they can challenge the decision, and 8) finally, if no appeals are made, I can request my certified permit.

The lady at the planning department was very nice and was kind enough to send me the report of a residential kitchen that had already gone through this process. I was dumbfounded at the amount of time and effort and work it took to approve this simple baking business. The report found that the business (like most cottage food businesses) would have almost zero impact on the neighborhood, and the findings in the report often used the words “obviously” and “clearly” because it was instantly apparent that this business was in no way infringing on any of the concerns that this process was created to address.

Changing Plans

Given that my goal is to sell at the farmers market this summer, and that the earliest I could get approved by zoning would be in late August, I could immediately tell that selling as a legal CFO wasn’t going to happen in the short-term. But I know that it’s fairly common (not sure about MA) for local markets to allow basic vendors without requiring health department permits, so my next step was contacting the town’s farmers market to see what they’d allow.

In fact, one person at the planning department even suggested to me that I don’t worry about getting approved, since my business was so simple and small. It seemed like they were aware of many small food businesses in the area that are not certified, which I’m fully aware is a very common thing across the country. Since I generally have good intentions, I know the laws, I made substantial efforts to follow them, and I am making something very simple and low-risk, I decided that I would be perfectly fine going rogue for the summer (very out-of-character for me, I know), if a market would let me in.

Unfortunately, my town’s farmers market requires that I have all my ducks in a row before they can approve me, so I can’t sell there as a cottage food operator this summer. They did suggest, however, that I find a commercial kitchen to use (since that bypasses zoning), and ironically enough, that might be the quickest and easiest path to selling at the market soon. I’m still not sure what will happen, but it’s already an adventure!

Less Is More

If I were to set up my residential kitchen over the next 3+ months, the cost of permits from those two departments alone (health and zoning) would be over $500. That doesn’t even factor in other costs like business licensing, sales tax, temporary event permits, etc. I also didn’t go into the details of the health department’s application for residential kitchens, but that’s pretty complicated all on its own.

Now that I’ve brought you deep into what the governmental process can look like, I’d like you to step back a little bit and consider the simplicity of my mission: I am trying to make some batches of chocolate fudge, head down the road to the farmers market once per week, and share it with locals who want to buy it. It really couldn’t get much simpler: this is the same basic communal activity that has formed the fabric of our civilization for millennia. And yet, to do this today, in my area, requires many hours of work from myself and government employees, and many, many dollars — and all of that before I can even sell one piece of fudge.

After getting a taste for what it would take to start a residential kitchen in my town, it came as no surprise that there is only one registered residential kitchen amongst our town’s population of over 12,000.

Give Thanks

Despite my difficulties, the great news is that it’s likely to be much easier for you to sell at your farmers market this summer, thanks to cottage food laws around the country. The reason it’s complicated in Massachusetts is because they do not yet have a modern cottage food law. Instead, their law has fewer limitations and allows residential kitchens to act similarly to commercial kitchens. Virginia is a good example of a state that has an older, less restrictive law, as well as a newer cottage food law.

You’re more likely to face complications like me if you live in some of the more bureaucratic states, like California, New York, Illinois, Washington, and Massachusetts. However, cottage food laws have greatly offset a lot of the red tape in some of those states, and have almost completely eliminated it in others, like Texas. In fact, many zoning laws in Texas were disallowing CFOs entirely, so an amendment was added that forced all government departments to comply with the cottage food law. In other words, as long as someone follows the law in Texas, the government can’t get in the way anymore.

My struggles in getting a CFO started have deepened my appreciation for cottage food laws even more. If you live in an area where cottage food laws make it possible for you to easily sell your homemade goods at the farmers market, please don’t take it for granted! In most states, a great deal of effort was made to allow you to do this, and it’s a fantastic way to make your summer a memorable one. At the very least, encourage these entrepreneurs by heading to the market and buying from them. The cottage food laws make it so much easier for people to explore, connect, and try new things… take advantage of it!