Did You Know It Is Illegal To Make Food For Sale In Your Home?

2010 June 30
by welovejam

Most of the people we encounter at farmers’ markets (where we have the most exposure to our customers) are shocked to learn it is against the law to make food for sale in your home.  Food for sale must be made in a special kitchen that is approved and regularly inspected by various government agencies to insure proper sanitation is practiced so no one gets sick from eating what is made.

This at face value is critical towards keeping the food you buy safe, but on the flip side presents massive obstacles and cost to people entering into the food business for the first time.

A few years ago there was an article about a retired WWII vet who every Christmas would make fruit cake to sell to his neighbors. He loved making it and the extra money helped him out. He made the mistake of placing a sign in the window of his house advertising the fruit cake for sale. Somehow a health inspector found out and they shut him down. There was a huge public outcry about this, but the law is the law and his annual fruit cake sales were immediately halted forever. Here is the story.

Why is food cooked in a home completely banned? Well, we are not sure how this started, but it has been a law for some time. We have heard some cities and towns are considering allowing people to make food in their home kitchens and would inspect them, but as of now this hasn’t happened. Generally a home kitchen presents a higher chance of cross contamination between personal food and food prepared for sale. Also, since the kitchen is in a home with various other people who might not be trained on safe food handling protocol, along with pets, cigarette smoke, dust, bugs etc. there is a higher chance for problems to happen then in a dedicated space just about food made for sale.

Most residential areas are not zoned for business purposes, so even having a home commercial kitchen would be a zoning violation. Commercial kitchens also have elements home kitchens do not. They usually don’t have grease traps that are mandatory for commercial kitchens to prevent excess build up of fats in the sewer lines. They don’t have special fire sprinkler systems over stoves. They don’t have special plumbing that would prevent sewage backup into sinks and dishwashers that commercial kitchens all must have. Then there are the myraid laws such as floor, wall and ceiling surfaces, ventilation, refrigeration, prep areas, the type of sinks (three section sinks are mandatory) etc. The list goes on and on.

Quite simply based on current laws, it is impossible for many reasons to have a commercial kitchen in a home.

So, if you want to break into the food business since your day job is driving you nuts working for a boss that you think is a moron, or you are out of work, it is not easy.

One of the best things to do is to find a commercial kitchen you can rent by the hour. These facilities already have all the health permits and you usually just need to prove you have insurance to cover any accidents that might happen. Since commercial rental kitchens are a rarity, it is easier to approach community centers and churches that have approved kitchens to see if they might want to rent to you. This way you can avoid the costly and nightmarish chore of buying equipment and building a facility, or buying an existing one.

If you decide to go the rental route, the insurance can be fairly inexpensive based on what you will be preparing. For us, with jams and bbq sauce, which are considered very safe, insurance is low. If you are canning tuna fish or making fresh salsa, which are more prone to bacterial growth and contamination, it can be more expensive. We use CNA Insurance, but there are others out there. Your premium will be based on the minimum requirement of coverage by the commercial kitchen you rent, and what you make.

You will also need to pass a safe food handling certification class that will be offered by your local health department. These are usually one day classes with a test at the end. If you pass the test, you are the point person for insuring all food prepared by you our others you hire conforms to health department requirements. These classes are really great. They show you pictures of restaurant kitchens that have serious violations that make you want to be the best, most sanitary food prep person around. Yes, dead rats in refrigerators, neon orange mold growing on stuff – it happens every day.

But what if you are sick of working in a commercial kitchen? They do have their disadvantages. Sometimes you show up, but they are full of other people so you have to go home. This could be a big problem if you have a deadline. Then there is the issue of them not having the proper equipment. For us, who can stuff, a basic commercial kitchen does not have the proper, specialized equipment, which made us do about 10 times the amount of work then we needed to when we first used one. There is also the aspect of theft, which can happen. Finally there is a cost factor. A commercial kitchen can range from $1o per hour per person to $50 per hour per person. It can get expensive. If you think you want to make a future out of professionally making food, at some point you will need to get your own facility. It is kinda like the advantage of renting vs. owing your own home. In the long run, owning is cheaper and a better option.

Another avenue you can go is to approach a food manufacturing company and pay them to do all the work. This is called co-packing. These are established companies that specialize in certain foods, such as baked, canned, juices etc. They do all the work and you sit back and hopefully collect enough money after their costs that it is worth your while. However, if you want to be actively involved in manufacturing and quality control, you don’t want to use a co-packer. And, just like the rental kitchen, in the long run, it will be cheaper for you to have complete control and your own facility.

Using a rental kitchen or a co-packer is a wise choice in the early phases of your business.

But what about when you are ready to have your own kitchen? What is involved?

First,  you need to meet two very important requirements. You should not be prone to nervous breakdowns and you need to have a lot of money. The process of designing and building a facility is daunting and can take years. There are millions of details that require a lot of thought and experience to work out. For us, just trying to find a company to make a small machine to fill our jars took months. There are consultants who will take your money in exchange for giving you expert advice, but out of all the people we talked with none of them seemed knowledgeable. Even experts in their field could not answer many of our questions. Basically, you will need to figure out everything yourself and become an expert on very esoteric subjects no schooling could ever teach. For example, what are the advantages/disadvantages of pneumatic equipment vs. electric? Yes, that is gobbleygook to just about everyone, but you will have to learn all about it yourself from talking to all kinds of people. That is just the tip of the iceburg.

Then there is the issue of what equipment to buy. Sure, we all know when we buy a car or a refrigerator the major brands. There are Hondas, Fords, BMWs, VWs for cars; Kenmore, Subzero, GE for refrigerators. There are tons of websites with customer and expert reviews to help you make a decision. Or you can just ask friends. But what about when you need to buy a commercial dishwasher and you never heard of any of the companies that make them, or you need to find a machine that can screw on caps, or a labeling machine? There are no resources available with reviews for commecial equipment like there is for consumer equipment. You are basically stuck looking at technical data or calling up similar companies that make what you make for advice. And generally companies are tight lipped about their equipment. No one wants to tell anyone what they are using for some reason.

Then there is the cost. Commercial equipment is always many times more expensive than consumer stuff. That dishwasher you see at Home Depot for $200 seems affordable, but when the cheapest commercial dishwasher you can find is $3000 that is a big jump. And yes, you cannot use that Home Depot dishwasher in a commercial facility since commercial dishwahsers must have special sterilizing features that absolutely no comsumer dishwashers have. Same goes for refrigerators. Commercial refrigerators are designed to always maintain a constant temperature, whereas consumers ones do not. For food inspectors, and for certain foods a constant temperature is critical. Can you see what a hassle it is to learn this stuff? Can you see how it gets so expensive?

Then there is the issue of construction. For your house you can get the local handyman to do work, but what about when you need to have special duct work custom fabricated for your ventilation which is required (you must have exhaust and fresh air). Sheet metal workers, commercial electricians, plumbers etc. are all union shops and their rates are substantially higher than the residential contractor. Don’t get me wrong. We support unions, but this is another factor you have to take into consideration. What you might think would cost $800 to do in your home is more like $3000 in a commercial building. A good general rule is to multiply by 4 what you think it will cost. $50,000? No, more like $200,000.

Welcome to the world of owning a business. Spend big money and hope some day to make big money. Hope, that is the key word. All businesses are expensive to start, but manufacturing is the most expensive. Do you have what it takes?

So, if you are considering jumping into the food business drop us an email. We are always willing to help. We have learned everything from trial and error. And we are learning every day, and spending lots of money. So buy our jam and stuff. We got a lot of bills to pay!

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