Marilyn Costa sells her home-baked, all-vegan products at farmers and green markets. / Photos courtesy of Marilyn Costa

 

Editor’s note: This is the first half of a story that ran in the Winter 2016 edition of Florida Food & Farm. Part 2 will run Wednesday, Oct. 19.

In the midst of the growing green market trend and a still-struggling economy, the Florida Legislature in 2011 created what came to be known as the “Cottage Food Law.” The result has been a bevy of home bakers, jam and jelly makers, and other creative cooks who ply their wares each week at green markets throughout the state.


But the law, which allows small companies to use home kitchens to create their products, is extremely narrow. People still are required to check city and county laws, including those related to building and zoning, as well as business-tax regulations. Some local governments outlaw the Cottage Food Law completely, while others, including Miami-Dade County, restrict its use to certain zoning districts.

Four years later, the law still causes confusion and some resentment over what some established businesses consider unfair competition from the entrepreneurs – often, home cooks.

“We’ve certainly seen a lot of small businesses get started at the farmers markets and done so under the Cottage Food Laws,” said Art Friedrich, who runs three green markets in Miami-Dade County, including the Upper East Side Farmers Market, in conjunction with the Urban Oasis Project. “Some of them want to take it to a full-fledged business, and I think it’s really important to allow them to have limited income from farmers markets, get customer feedback. It gives you a big focus group.”

Cottage Food Law-MCosta-chalkboard

Marilyn Costa’s chalkboard.

The law allows an exemption from the Florida Department of Agriculture’s regulations on commercial kitchens, meaning that several foods can be produced in non-commercial or home kitchens. Foods that can be produced this way are breads and rolls, cakes, pastries, candies, honey, jams and jellies, fruit pies, herbs, seasonings, homemade pasta, cereals, granola, coated nuts, vinegars and popcorn.

With the Cottage Food Law, perishables and pickles prohibited

The list of prohibited items is longer and covers broad categories of foods that are perishable and, thus, more likely to become contaminated with harmful bacteria. These include “bakery goods which require any type of refrigeration, such as cream, custard or meringue pies; and cakes or pastries with cream cheese icings or fillings.”

“It’s very restrictive,” says Charles LaPradd, agricultural manager for Miami-Dade County, who has become a de facto expert on the law. “But that was based on safety,” he adds. “All the foods that are allowed have a propensity for low levels of problems.”

Some foods that one might associate with home kitchens are specifically prohibited because of their potential link to food contamination, LaPradd says. “For example, pickles are prohibited. In the past, there have been cases of botulism from improperly pickled pickles.”

Cottage Food Law a boon to Costa

But the law has proven to be the perfect entrée into a niche business for Marilyn Costa of Miami-Dade County, who left the corporate world after 20 years and began creating vegan desserts.

“I wanted to do something that I was passionate about,” Costa says. After a trip to India – where she learned the principles of Ayurveda, a holistic system of wellness that focuses on mind, body and spirit – she cut white sugar from her diet and began learning how to make raw food desserts to satisfy her sweet tooth. Her company, Half Baked Vegan, was born.

“I started posting some of my desserts on Facebook, and people were going crazy for them. So I thought maybe I could sell a few to my friends. I started at the farmers market … and I saw that people love it. I eventually would love to open up a small café that serves juices and healthy desserts.”

Using no dairy products, she doesn’t worry about the state’s restrictions on perishables. Most of her pies have crusts made from nuts and dates. Desserts are sweetened with Grade B maple syrup; she likes its intense flavor. She has even made chocolate desserts from raw cacao.

Sales restricted to markets

But even more than the foods allowed, the law’s other restrictions would make it impossible for any business to operate under the cottage food exclusion for long. That’s because a cottage food operation’s annual gross sales – that includes all the foods a business sells, at all locations – cannot exceed $15,000. It’s a number Costa says she’s “nowhere near.”

No sales are allowed over the Internet, by mail order or as wholesale, either. That, too, is for safety – for the buyer – LaPradd says. In-person sales ensure that a buyer knows exactly who is running a cottage food operation. The Florida Department of Agriculture (FDA) label for allergens also is required.

“The Cottage Food Law very specifically says that you have to buy direct,” LaPradd explains. “That way, people know who they’re getting it from. That’s why sales on the Internet were prohibited. And they (sellers) still have to use the FDA labeling, including for allergens. And it’s all based on safety.”

Next Wednesday: Why the Cottage Food Law was created, and is it being abused?