Thursday, August 28, 2014

Flouring Talents

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Thanks to a new law, home bakers can measure, mix and bake their way to the free market, but not everyone is buying it.

At 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, Dana Dumas shoves two more cookie sheets into a hot oven in her tidy home kitchen. She has been up since dawn, baking sheet after sheet of jam-filled cookies for an upcoming event.


“People can’t believe I can produce 60 to 100 pies and 300 to 400 bags of cookies for one event out of one home kitchen oven!” she says with a laugh.

Dumas will spend the rest of the day as she has the last several days: at home baking and packaging her SugarJam cookies to sell at a bridal fair. Across town, another home baker is frosting cupcakes to sell at a farmers’ market, and another is bagging up granola. An autistic young man is methodically working through his checklist to bake and deliver orders for brownies. All have dreams of rolling in dough, both literally and figuratively. If not for a spunky septuagenarian from Fountain Hills, these budding entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to sell their goodies to a family member, let alone the public at large.

According to David Crabill, creator of national cottage food resource website cottagefoods.org, 41 states have laws or allowances for the commercial sale of home-baked goods. Several states, including Arizona, passed cottage food laws between 2009 and 2012, spurred by the economic downturn and the growth in popularity of farmers’ markets. Led by flour-flinging citizen activists, home baking became a valuable source of income for many hands left idle by the Great Recession – and a boon for baking entrepreneurs as the economy recovers. However, not everyone is happy about Arizona’s new law, especially some commercial bakers who view home bakers as competition with a built-in advantage, and the Maricopa County health department, which was cut out of the regulatory loop.

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Dana Dumas of SugarJam Cookies


Stirring the Pot
Judy Kubinski of Fountain Hills operated a successful chocolate confections store called Jus Chocolate for 20 years. Then she had a stroke. Forced to close the store in 2003 to focus on her recovery, she let her chocolate-making equipment sit idle in her garage for seven years. With limited mobility but enough stamina to make small batches of chocolates, she was ready to go back to work in 2010 – but no one would hire her and she didn’t have the physical strength or financial resources to open another retail store.

“I needed to make money,” she says. “So I had to do something.”

She thought she would make chocolates, candies and baked goods in her home to sell to retail stores and at farmers’ markets to generate a small income. There was only one problem. It wasn’t legal.

Kubinski, now 72, searched the Internet and discovered the term “cottage industry.” Some states allowed home bakers and candy makers to legally sell homemade goods to individuals and businesses under a cottage food law. Arizona had no such law.

She contacted the county health department, Maricopa County Environmental Services Department (MCESD), and learned the only way she could sell to retail stores was to apply for and receive a Class 2 Baking permit for $310 that stipulated the goods must be baked in an approved commercial kitchen subject to frequent county inspections.

Short the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to build an approved commercial kitchen, or even the thousands of dollars required to rent shared commercial kitchen space, Kubinski did what desperate citizens often do: She contacted her state representative and asked for help.

Representative John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) was originally skeptical about home bakers selling products commercially. But Kubinski was persistent and urged him to look into the matter. After some study, he discovered that a majority of states had either passed a cottage food law or were considering it.

“I called the state health department and asked [Arizona Department of Health Services Director Will Humble] if there would be a problem with this [law]. He said ‘no.’ So I wrote it and we passed it,” Kavanagh says.

House Bill 2130, sponsored by Kavanagh to legalize the commercial sale of home-baked goods (with stipulations), passed the Arizona House and Senate in early 2011 and was enacted in July of that year.

Kubinski promptly went to work.

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Candy Lesher of Baci d'Amore


Legal Pie
“The Arizona law is very friendly to the cottage baker,” Crabill of cottagefoods.org says. “Home bakers in Arizona are fortunate. Compared to some states, there aren’t many limitations.”

Home-baking bill architect Kavanagh acknowledges there are health concerns associated with any home food business, but he also feels the Arizona law is balanced between protecting public health and enabling home bakers to create successful businesses. The law requires four conditions be met before bakers and confectioners can sell to the public.

First, only “non-hazardous” grain-based baked and confectionary goods are allowed. Cookies, brownies, cupcakes and fruit pies are approved products. Cheesecake? Forget it. No custard-based desserts like crème brûlée, either. Any product that requires refrigeration is taboo – and for good reason. If not stored at a safe temperature, dairy-based products can give rise to dangerous pathogens and consumption of the tainted product will cause serious – even life-threatening – food poisoning.

Second, would-be home bakers are required to register with the state, a process as simple as answering four questions. The registry provides the state health department with a record of everyone who intends to participate as a cottage baker, allowing the state to disseminate information about food safety and provide participants with healthy recipe ideas for their businesses.

Home bakers must also obtain a food handler’s card if their county requires one. The cost of the Food Service Worker card in Maricopa County is $15 and entails passing a standard test based on a food safety and sanitation guidebook.

Finally, products must be labeled with the address and contact information of the maker, include a list of all ingredients in the product, and disclose that the product was prepared in a home kitchen. The label must be given to the final consumer of the product.

According to Humble, who volunteered his department to oversee the program, 1,700 Arizona residents across the state have registered for home-baking. The roster includes people from a swirl of backgrounds – from retirees to new mothers to professional chefs.

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Matt Resnik, baker of SMILE Biscotti

 
Proving Ground
A few years from retirement, Maureen Flanigan lost her job and needed an income. Flanigan created MJ’s Tasty Treats in 2012 after registering as a home baker. A frequent shopper at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market, she found a niche she could fill – flavored potato chips, which became an instant hit. She wants to add dips to complement her chips, but the law doesn’t allow it. She would need to upgrade to a commercial baking permit and move production out of her home and into a commercial kitchen. For now she is sticking with the economically friendly home-baking program.

“You still have to meet requirements, like getting a food handler’s card, but from an economic standpoint, it gives a person a chance to see if it’s going to work, sort of like a trial market,” Flanigan says.

Not everyone is thrilled with the law. Nicki Anderson owns The Cupcake Café and bakes out of a shared commercial kitchen. She also manages that kitchen and is responsible for renting space to other food producers. “[The law] has its pros and cons, but it has definitely impacted my business in a couple of ways,” Anderson says. “I’ve noticed a drop in the number of people looking for space, and at farmers’ markets, there is increased competition.”

She points out that home bakers have a pricing advantage over commercial producers because of the home bakers’ lower overhead costs.

Renting commercial kitchen space is expensive. Shared kitchens charge $20 to $30 per hour, generally with a 10- to 15-hours-per-month minimum, but some will collect first and last month’s rent and also charge for dry goods or refrigerated storage space. Bakers who rent commercial kitchens must receive a permit from the county, tacking on another $300 to $600. Throw in ingredient and ancillary equipment overhead, and out-of-pocket costs could reach $1,500 before turning on an oven.

Supporters say the cottage food law can provide a useful gateway to commercial baking. SugarJam's Dumas left the corporate world to stay home with her two young children, but she wanted to contribute financially to the household. She started SugarJam Cookies in September 2011, two months after the law was enacted. “I registered for the law immediately, got my food handler’s card and product liability insurance and set up a booth at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market with three flavors of my sugar cookies,” she says.  Over time, Dumas expanded to fairs and food events, and even hired a helper. This fall, she plans to move from her home kitchen to a shared commercial retail space.

“The law has been nothing but a godsend for me,” she says.

phm1013 ft8 lgMeeting a Knead
Another constituency served by the cottage food law is people with developmental disabilities. From the beginning, Humble believed the law could relieve the economic hardships for some people who live in group homes or people with developmental limitations that prevent them from entering the workforce. “This law fits well with those with employment disabilities,” Humble says. “It can help them build skills that might lead to employment later.”

Matthew Cottle, 24, owns The Stuttering King Bakery, a one-year-old home-based bakery named after King George VI – the speech-impeded monarch depicted in the 2010 movie, The King’s Speech. Matthew is working diligently to overcome his own disability.

“Matt was diagnosed as a high functioning autistic,” his mother, Peggy, explains. “He has trouble with auditory learning, but he expressed a desire to bake early on.”

Matthew studied privately with a pastry chef to learn the basics of baking and attended the kitchen program at Community Kitchen, a job skills program managed through St. Mary’s Food Bank. He needs constant routine and the methodical steps and procedures of baking provide Matthew with a structure where he can flourish.

Orders for brownies, cupcakes, scones and donuts come through the company’s website, stutteringkingbakery.com. Peggy confirms the details with a phone call and Matthew bakes and delivers the goods. Matthew also sells to a high-end consignment store and is in discussions with other stores, including a new
Scottsdale coffee shop, to carry his baked goods.

“The law is wonderful and so important to us,” Peggy says. She says it protects Matthew by providing him a safe working environment and it protects the public because the only products allowed are non-hazardous in nature. She hopes it gives Matthew the opportunity to become self-sufficient, perhaps even open a commercial bakery where he can mentor and hire other autistic adults.

Matt Resnik, 22, is also autistic and just beginning the process of starting a home-based baking business called SMILE Biscotti, an acronym for Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise (smilebiscotti.com). Matt and his father, Rob, recently attended a 10-week training course that covered all aspects of running a confectionary home-based business. The program, a collaborative effort between Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC), which Matt’s mother co-founded, and the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, promotes self-sufficiency and independence for adults with autism.

“The program steered us to resources we needed for starting the business,” Rob says. “There is so much more to it than baking biscotti. The beauty of the law is it gives Matt an opportunity to engage in meaningful employment, and hopefully, support himself.”

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Not everyone who signed up for the program started whipping up batches of dough at home right away. Several chef registrants have said they have no plans to participate in the program because of restrictive guidelines implemented by MCESD soon after the law was enacted. The guidelines stipulate that food businesses with county-issued permits – every restaurant, gourmet and grocery market in the county – were not allowed to resell home-baked goods, effectively cutting off a potentially large market for home bakers.

John Kolman, Director of MCESD, defended the guidelines, saying his department is responsible for the public health of Maricopa County residents and he doesn’t believe the law offers enough regulation. “There is no enforcement or recourse,” he says of the current law. “It comes down to accountability.”

Humble learned of the stipulation in late July and immediately asked the State Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on MCESD’s guidelines. On July 30, the Attorney General’s Office issued a memo that said in part, “…the County does not have authority to adopt ANY ordinances or rules that in any way regulate non-hazardous home baked goods…” and goes on to say, “…any ordinance or rule of a County which in any way prohibits activity conducted under [the home-baking law] would be in clear conflict with this state law and not permitted.”

Former restaurateur and culinary instructor Candy Lesher registered for the home baking law to start a chocolate truffles and scones company called Baci d’Amore (bacitruffles.com) out of her home kitchen in Tempe. “The law lets you figure out if you’re on track and answers the question, ‘is my product as good as I think it is’ before signing an expensive lease on commercial space.”

Lesher stopped selling her truffles after a severe ankle injury and wasn’t sure she would go back in business because of the County’s restrictive guidelines. Now that the State Attorney General’s office has ruled, she’s enthusiastic about gearing up again, with plans to wholesale to gourmet markets in addition to special orders through her website.

State and county power squabbling aside, the law has positively impacted livelihoods. Asked how it feels to be the Susan B. Anthony of Arizona home-baking, Kubinski demurs. “I feel good, but I have to thank John Kavanagh. He really listens to his constituents.”

Kubinksi’s chocolate-making equipment isn’t idle anymore. Her son has joined her in the kitchen and Jus Chocolates sells seasonally at farmers’ markets. She says she’s thinking of converting her garage into a mini-chocolate factory and storefront. There is only one problem. It isn’t legal – at least not yet. Never underestimate a feisty chocolate maker who won’t take no for an answer.

How to join the home baking guild
Visit the Arizona Home Baked and Confectionary Goods site for all the information needed to start a home-based baking and confectionary business, including how to register, where to go to obtain a food handler’s card by county, production and labeling requirements, and contact information for additional help. azdhs.gov/phs/oeh/fses/goods

5 Home-Baked Goods and Confections to Try
Baci d’Amore Truffles
bacitruffles.com
Candy Lesher hand-rolls her Belgium chocolate truffles, resulting in a tres chic rustic appearance, but these “3-bite” chocolates are 100-percent pure luxury. All seven flavors are rolled in complementary toppings, including the salted caramel “macchiato” rolled in cocoa and espresso. Special order only.

MJ’s Tasty Treats Flavored Potato Chips
Available only at Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market, which reopens in October, Maureen Flanigan’s in-demand spuds sell out early. This part-Irish gal uses a low-moisture potato, which makes her chips consistently crisp. Look for white cheddar and garlic, chile and lime, and classic salt and vinegar flavors.

StoneGrindz Raw Chocolate Bars
stonegrindz.com
Steven Shipler uses a stone grinder to pulverize raw cacao beans with unrefined sugar and other carefully sourced ingredients to create bold chocolate bars with a rustic texture and unique taste – not your typical chocolate bar. Try the salted almond or the espresso jolt bars.

SugarJam Cookies
sugarjamcookies.com
Although she is transitioning to a shared retail space, Dana Dumas made her mark in her home kitchen. Her sugar cookies have a unique shortbread crumb, and some are filled with local jams she doctors with spices, including her best seller, Spiced Peach Cobbler.

The Healthy Nut
healthynutgranola.com
Ashley Dewey’s gourmet granolas sound far more decadent than they really are – oatmeal cookie, banana nut bread and gingersnap. She relies on spices, olive oil and fruit juices instead of unhealthy fats and refined sugars for flavor.

 

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