It’s no news that Austin is quickly becoming a destination for both fans of food and innovative restaurateurs; as Top Chef debuts their new Texas-centric season, we’re seeing an increase in brick-and-mortar eateries and trailers alike. But there’s another culinary demographic that’s been steadily growing—and fighting for changes to Texas food laws: the cottage baking industry.
Imagine if your grandmother started mass-producing her famous snickerdoodles, 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 2010-2011 state legislative session, makes it both easier and harder for home-based bakers to 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 over 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 this 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, 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 never passed due to criticism of the bill’s language. But especially after last summer saw a sudden crackdown on food companies statewide, the need for clear regulations was especially imperative this year.
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 business. 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 farmers' markets.
“I would have a much easier time getting off the ground if I could [sell at farmer’s 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.”
It’s true that some of the most prominent home bakeries in Austin are primarily wedding (and event) cake bakers; for example, the three cited on prominent resource TexasCottageFoodLaw.com—Seven Cakes, Cake Doctor LLC and Home Sweet Home Bakery—are producing commercial-quality goods from their own kitchens. (TexasCottageFoodLaw.com launched in 2007, with the intent to impact legislation that would alleviate home bakers’ fears of legal issues. The site’s [anonymous] founders 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 this is great for all the cupcake makers, cookie chefs and wedding cake specialists who can’t afford to devote their full time to their passion, but want to share it with others.