By Ashira Morris
Above: Stefanie Samara Hamblen, owner of the now-legal “Illegal Jam Company,” cans a batch of her locally-sourced jams.
Recent legislation enables entrepreneurs to sell homemade goods
Ruthann Macheski used to drive 40 miles from her farm in Williston to Gainesville, just to bake in a commercial kitchen. Some did not have the equipment she needed, so she lugged pounds of large-scale pots and pans, baking sheets and springform pans back and forth.
When House Bill 7209, commonly referred to as the Cottage Food law, passed on July 1, the breads and cakes made in Macheski’s own home kitchen became legal to sell.
“[Before] I would go wherever I could get space,” she said. “It was a hassle. Now I don’t have to leave the farm.”
Before the law passed, any food for sale had to be cooked in a commercial kitchen. These kitchens are inspector-certified and guarantee a government-approved level of sanitation.
Macheski, who formerly worked as a kitchen inspector before permanently moving out to her farm, can now sell homemade breads and cakes under her company name, Ruthie’s Country Kitchen, at the farmers’ market.
Food sold under the Cottage Food law must be a direct sale. It can be sold from the seller’s home, at farmers’ markets and at roadside stands. Macheski now sells baked goods in addition to meat, dairy and produce from her farm and at local farmers’ markets.
The law does not cover indirect sales, such as providing for a restaurant. Selling online is also not allowed.
Although some rules are well- detailed, the entire law is not clearly explained. The pamphlet printed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was not explicit enough, said Macheski. Her copy of the brochure is covered in penciled notes and questions.
She called the lawmakers in the Florida Senate with a list of questions.
Did “homemade pasta” refer to fresh or dried noodles? Did dehydrated soups fall under the category of “dry herbs, seasonings and mixtures?”
“I burned up the phone line to Tallahassee,” she said. The government workers were stumped. Although they promised to call back, her questions remain unanswered.
The guide says to check with local municipal, city or county government for official requirements. The problem? Not all of these officials are even aware the law exists.
With her calls and questions, the local officials who oversee this new law have realized they may have to address it within their business structure.
“I have brought this to the attention of so many county and city inspectors,” Macheski said.
She had followed the law as it went through the house and legislature. After it passed, she began spreading the word to her friends. For farmers already selling at markets, baking, say, a zucchini bread out of the squash that didn’t sell, allows them to effectively double their profit. They can make more money without growing more produce.
In addition to baked goods, the Cottage Food law covers jam and other fruit products like vinegars, pasta, dry herbs, granola, nuts and honey. The product must be labeled with the name of the Cottage Food Operation and product, all ingredients, the net weight and any allergens.
The new law does not cover many food items, including meats, dairy products, ketchup and canned pickled products. If these products aren’t made properly, they can cause salmonella or botulism. To prevent any sanitation disasters, Macheski recommends that anyone interested in selling from a home kitchen take an online course in food handling.
“My worry is that too many people will get involved, who don’t know what they’re doing,” she said.
Stefanie Samara Hamblen, who owns the Illegal Jam Company, understands the importance of food safety. She gets a certain satisfaction out of the noise the jars make when they are properly suctioned, guaranteeing that they won’t spoil.
“It’s that ping you hear when you know they’re sealed,” she said. “That’s when you know it’s done.”
Her jam hobby started four years ago, when she took the excess figs from her neighbor’s trees and re-created her grandma’s preserves.
By this summer, jam had grown from pastime to obsession. She was able to give some jars away to friends and family, but her jam-making outstripped her gift-giving. By June 30, there were 160 Bell jars of homemade jam stacked in her kitchen, overflowing out of the pantry and on to her front hall table.
“It was out of control,” Hamblen said.
Since the jams were made in her home instead of a commercial kitchen, Hamblen couldn’t sell them. She dubbed her enterprise the “Illegal Jam Company” in the July issue of Hogtown HomeGrown, the monthly newsletter she writes and publishes that promotes local eating and home cooking.
But after the Cottage Food law passed – ironically, the day after she published the newsletter – her homemade jam became legal. Suddenly, Hamblen’s passion for preserves had the potential to become a profitable business.
“I realized I was sitting on a gold mine,” she said.
Hamblen keeps her operations as simple as her recipes.
She uses her “plain old four-burner” stove to make the jam. Her part-time job as a nanny provides her with toddler taste-testers.
Hamblen sells her jams at the Alachua County and Haile Village Farmers’ Markets and from her house.
Though at one point she was making more jam than she could give away, Hamblen doesn’t anticipate selling over the profit limit of $15,000 per year.
Macheski, however, is considering building a separate commercial kitchen on her farm within the next two years.
Although the Cottage Food laws cover her current operations, a commercial kitchen eliminates restrictions. She could start selling homemade pickles, tomato sauces and other products not covered by Cottage Food laws and would not be subject to the profit limit. She would also be able to sell these products in restaurants and specialty food stores.
These new laws work well for simpler operations, but a commercial kitchen still allows for a wider range of options.
Correction (1/4/12): Currently, Stefanie Hamblen does not sell her jams at the Alachua County or Haile Village Farmers’ Markets. We apologize for the error. For more about the “Illegal Jam Company,” check out its Facebook page.