In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more people are deciding to pursue their passions instead of the traditional 9 to 5 grind. If you’re determined to spend your days shipping off jars of jam instead of filling out spreadsheets, you may be wondering how to get your cottage food business off the ground—and finding yourself a tad overwhelmed by the abundance of resources available. Here, we’ve done our best to boil everything down to the bare essentials you’ll need to get started.
Step 1: Identify your niche
Most online food businesses are born from a passion or hobby. If that’s the case for you, you can move on to the next step—you’ll bound to be most successful with something you already know and love. If you haven’t yet settled on which type of food product you’d like to sell, spend some time doing a little research. You might want to cash in on a current food trend—like plant-based sausage or oat milk—or you could try something unique that will stand out in a noisy marketplace. Gourmet, gluten-free, organic, and kosher foods all tend to be successful homemade foods, since they are harder to find at the average supermarket.
You could also play it on the safe side, and choose a food that requires minimal equipment, fewer shipping requirements, and fewer legal restrictions. Packaged candy, coffee, tea, nuts, pickles, and herbs tend to be easier to process and manage, so you might try your hand at selling those, before moving on to more challenging items.
Step 2: Know the codes
The food industry is closely regulated, and for good reason. Prior to the formation of the FDA in 1906, there was little to protect the public from unsafe or unsanitary food items. When starting your own cottage food business, it’s important to do your research and understand exactly what you need to do to protect your customers and yourself. If the government deems your products to be unsafe, it can destroy your inventory, close down your operations, fine you, or even jail you. As long as you know the rules and stick to them, though, you should be able to keep your nose (and your food) clean.
Step 3: Source your ingredients
Cost and quality are two things you should consider when sourcing your ingredients. Don’t just head down to the Mega Lo Mart because it’s close by—shop around and compare prices. If you’re just making small batches, it may be cost-effective for you to source ingredients from club membership stores, like Costco or Sam’s Club. Wholesale distributors can also help you save a lot on material costs, but be careful to ensure that every part of your supply chain is safe and trustworthy. For instance, if you’re selling organic apple pies, you’ll want to ensure that your egg, milk, and flour suppliers are all properly certified as truly organic before placing that claim on your label.
Step 4: Choose your manufacturing location
Most people who launch cottage food businesses start by making small batches in their home kitchens. If you decide to go this route, you’ll have to register your business as a facility and pass a home inspection. Note that, in order to meet regulations, you may need to make upgrades to your home setup, such as improving the ventilation or sealing off the kitchen from the rest of the home. Pets can often present another problem—in some states, pet-owners aren’t allowed to make commercial food at home at all.
If you can’t upgrade your kitchen or refuse to get rid of Fido, you’re not out of luck. You can also rent space in a shared commercial kitchen, or partner with an established food manufacturer. Both of these options, while more costly, can save you money in other ways—firstly, because you won’t have to buy or use your own equipment, and secondly, because they will already be registered and insured as commercial spaces.
Step 5: Design your packaging
Now that you’ve put some thought into what you’ll actually be selling, it’s time to devote some time to the bells and whistles—the details that will catch customers’ attention and subtly persuade them to buy. When planning your packaging, consider two things above all: your branding, and your country’s labeling requirements. On the branding side, consider:
- Visual elements, like colors, fonts, and logos. What do you want to communicate to your customers, and how will these elements help to do that?
- Copywriting: This is advertising-speak for the words that go on the package. How can you use a very small amount of space to say something very meaningful and compelling?
- Materials: What your package feels like and sounds like as it’s opened is just as important as how it looks from afar. Try to think critically about how the materials you choose can subtly reinforce your brand’s personality.
On the legal side of things, you’ll most likely need to add best-before dates, nutritional information, allergen warnings, and country of origin to your packaging. In America, the FDA’s Food Ingredient and Packaging Guide will be your best resource. If you plan to ship your products across international borders, especially to retailers, you will need to be check the destination country’s labeling regulations, too.
Remember the main ingredient: confidence
There’s no bones about it: starting a cottage food business is not for the faint of heart. During your journey to entrepreneurial success, you’ll likely encounter many hurdles and setbacks. However, remember that nothing in life worth having is without its challenges. Confidence and determination will serve you better than anything else on this list. (Well, okay, the legal stuff is probably more important. But after that, confidence).
Something that can help make the journey easier is knowing your suppliers, including your packaging suppliers. We at SSI Packaging have helped many small business owners launch their dream companies, and we’re here to help you, too. Our Richmond-based company can supply everything you need to package, label, and ship your products, with better service and advice than you’ll find at any big box store. To explore our catalog of products, click here.