While regulations vary by state, most states have traditionally not allowed you to manufacture food products in your home kitchen if you intend to sell them. In the past year or two, however, several states have enacted “Cottage Food” laws, whereby start up food producers CAN prepare certain foods in their homes without the usual licensing. Each state has its own guidelines regarding what kind of foods are allowed or prohibited, what the labeling requirements are, where these food products can be sold and more. These laws also cap gross sales, so once your sales go above that amount, you become subject to all the usual regulations.
Your best bet is to do an online search on “cottage food laws” for more information about the specific rules and laws in your particular state.
Some states with or without cottage food laws may still require your home kitchen meet commercial grade kitchen standards and pass a health department inspection. No one wants to find dog hair in their food! (In fact, every cottage food state prohibits pets from being in the home.) And even if you are allowed to use a home kitchen, you might still choose to find a commercial kitchen because it’s just more efficient. Once I moved to a kitchen that had the full size commercial ovens, planetary mixer and tons of counter space, there was no going back! It was so much easier and quicker to produce in that environment.
So where do you look for commercial kitchen space? You have a lot of options. When you’re looking, keep an open mind and be willing to be creative. There’s really no reason for you to invest in creating your own commercial kitchen space at the start up phase (costs can easily reach $50,000 in no time!) unless you know for sure you have significant production contracts in hand that will justify the large capital outlay necessary.
One choice is to rent space in a kitchen that is already licensed for commercial preparation. Many food entrepreneurs have started out using space in a restaurant, working there during the hours the restaurant is closed. Check out restaurants that are open only for breakfast and lunch; maybe you can use their space in the evenings. Talk to area caterers about using their kitchens too. Depending on what kind of catering they do, they may have the equipment you need. Many caterers aren’t very busy in their kitchens early in the week, so you could be in there on a Monday or Tuesday.
Some areas of the country have incubator kitchens for early-stage food businesses. These facilities offer shared rental opportunities and are fully equipped and licensed. Sometimes these facilities are connected to a university. In other cases, this type of kitchen may cater to a specific type of food business, vegetarian or baking or canning only, for example. One place to look for these types of kitchens is www.CulinaryIncubator.com. If you’re making jam, beans, salsa or the like, you could find a local cannery or canning facility. This page has a list of canning kitchens: http://pickyourown.org/canneries.htm that may be a good start for you.
Co-op kitchens are commercial kitchens that are set up for a variety of food producers and allow you to rent time and space in their facility. One example of such a facility is the Production Kitchen in West Palm Beach. Look online for this kind of arrangement in your area.
Do you have a Moose, Elk, Knights of Columbus or Shriners lodge in your town? Believe it not, this was the place I used in the very beginning of my business’ life. I knew some of the Shriners from the Chamber of Commerce and they were happy to help me get started. They charged a minimal hourly rate and I used their kitchen on Mondays. The men who were members kind of adopted me as their own “cookie lady” and loved coming through the kitchen to see what was going on when I was working there.
When it was time to move on, I ended up in a local church kitchen. Religious houses, like churches or synagogues, are great options because they aren’t usually in use during the week. And you might be surprised at how well-appointed these facilities are. I was! Not having had reason to be in one for years, I was thrilled to find three full-size commercial gas ovens, full-size baking pans, five or six cooling racks, a 35-gallon Hobart mixer, measuring spoons and cups, and an incredible amount of counter and refrigeration at my disposal. Like I mentioned earlier, there was no turning back to something smaller after that.
As a note, you don’t necessarily have to be a member of the congregation to use their kitchen.
Keep in mind that regardless of where you decide to produce your food product, even though that facility will (presumably) have proper licensing and insurance, you will still need some of your own licensing (at the least a city and/or county business license) and liability insurance.
Some facilities, like the co-op kitchens, will have set prices for their use. Others, like the restaurants and churches, may not have ever participated in such an arrangement before, so you’ll have some flexibility in working with them to establish something that works for both of you. Make sure you know what kind of budget you have to spend on this. The very first place I used, before the Shriners, I negotiated an amount that turned out to be way too high (I wasn’t selling nearly enough product to cover my rent there), and I had very limited access to it. Fortunately I didn’t have a long-term agreement and I was able to get away after just a few months and move to the Shriners’ facility with much more favorable terms. When I started working at the church kitchen, payment was made as donations to the church because non-profit organizations cannot legally rent out kitchen space for a for-profit businesses.
As with anything worth having or finding, you may encounter several rejections or dead ends as you search for the perfect place to produce your food product. I can’t recall exactly how many facilities I called. I left messages that weren’t returned and started hopeful conversations with countless people who never followed through. Be prepared for this journey and know that the right situation IS out there for you. Keep on searching and calling and you will meet with success!