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Home-bakers get the go ahead: What the new cottage bakery law means to fledgling dessert foodies

Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_bakery laws_September 2011

Blame it on Cake Boss. There’s a neglected culinary demographic in Texas that’s been growing steadily and fighting for changes to Texas food laws: the cottage baking industry.

Imagine if your grandmother started mass-producing her famous snickerdoodles and selling them by the dozen out of her cozy kitchen. That’s the traditional definition of a cottage bakery — one that operates out of the home — but Senate Bill 81, passed during the 2010-11 state legislative session, is changing the way home-based bakers keep up with the competition.

The bill defines the parameters for cottage bakeries, explicitly outlining the legal ways these DIY businesses can manufacture and sell their goods — but it also allows them to exist in the first place, which is a victory for many.

Currently, 23 states have laws allowing the operation of cottage bakeries, with an additional six (Texas included) allowing operation with some restriction, and another eight states with legislation still pending. The first cottage bakery law was passed in Oregon more than 20 years ago. Interestingly, while they were the first to allow sales of home-baked goods, they remain the most vigilant with regard to inspections, implementing surprise visits and restaurant-level standard certification.

There are two clear sides to the years-long battle leading up to the passage of the bill: on one hand, those concerned with public health seek to enact tough regulations on food produced outside of commercial kitchens, which are regularly inspected and meet a rigorous set of cleanliness checkpoints. On the other hand, home bakeries unable to afford prohibitive permit and kitchen rental costs have been fighting for the right to operate under more small business-friendly — but still health-focused — rules.

SB 81 isn’t the first time this issue has come up in our state congress. In 2009, HB 1139 referenced cottage baking, but was ultimately killed due to criticism of the bill’s language. But after last summer saw a sudden crackdown on food companies statewide, the need for clear regulations seemed imperative.

You can sift through the full text of the bill, but there are some main points addressed in the easier-to-digest official FAQs. To begin with, only certain types of foods can be manufactured from the home: baked goods, canned jams and “dried herb mixes” top the list of acceptable items. Not allowed? Baking mixes, dry pasta, kolaches with meat, roasted coffee beans and Rice Krispie treats, to name a few items on the lengthy list of prohibited wares.

Sellers don’t need a permit and can’t gross more than $50,000 annually from their baking businesses. They must label all food with the location of manufacture and a non-inspection disclaimer. And they can only sell out of their home — not over the Internet or, to the chagrin of many, at local farmers markets.

“I would have a much easier time getting off the ground if I could [sell at farmers markets] without having to rent commercial kitchen space,” explains one small-scale baker, who sells cookies from his home (and wishes to remain anonymous for legal reasons). “But that requires a permit and non-trivial upfront expenses. That's not to say the law isn't a big step in the right direction, especially for anyone making a few big-ticket items, like wedding cakes.”

There is support for such bakers in the form of TexasCottageFoodLaw.com, which launched in 2007 with the intent to impact legislation that would alleviate home bakers’ fears of legal issues. The site’s founders — other anonymous home-bakers —offer advice and tips for fledgling bakers, analyzing the law as well as providing information on food handling and health issues.

The bottom line? It’s now legal for bakers to sell goods made in their very own ovens without having to fork over the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars it costs to rent space in a commercial kitchen and acquire the necessary permits, licensing and insurance. And that's great news for all the cupcake makers, cookie chefs and wedding cake specialists who can’t afford to devote their full time to their passion but still want others to have their cake and eat it, too. 

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