How to start a food business in Oakland #1: Figuring out what to make

At Forage Kitchen, we’ve created a space where people with or without a food background can fulfill their dream of starting a food business. To that end, I thought I’d write up a no-nonsense guide on how to get started. Here goes!

1.     What to make:

If you don’t know what you want to make, starting a food business can seem daunting. I suggest picking something you really love and which—in your opinion—you haven’t seen done well. Running a business is hard, and it’s even harder if you’re making something that you’re not really excited about. Don’t worry if you can’t see yourself making it for the rest of your life, just make sure you’re excited about it RIGHT NOW.

Most of the success of any business rests on the passion of its owners. People want to support people who are excited about what they’re doing. That excitement will show though in all kinds of ways, from the way you talk about it and how good it tastes, to your marketing and the employees you hire, so make sure the excitement is there, or your chances of success will probably be slim.

If you’re still stuck, go to a market you see yourself selling in and observe what they have. Is there anything you LOVE that you’ve never seen sold? Look at what’s out there, but most importantly, at what’s not there.

2.     Start at home with a Cottage Food Permit:

As much as I’d love to tell you that, as soon as you find your idea, you should come to Forage Kitchen, it just wouldn’t be true. Start at home. With all the costs of renting a kitchen (even the much-reduced costs of being in a shared space like ours), it’s very hard to get a brand new business off the ground. You want to be 100% certain of your product before making that investment.

We’re lucky in California to have access to Cottage Food permits, which allow you to make products at home to sell at farmers markets and to local stores.

Unfortunately, this permit doesn’t cover all food products, only “non-potentially hazardous foods.” (Basically, you can’t make anything that you’d need to store in a refrigerator).  I’m not an expert on this, but the great folks over at SELC (a group that was VERY instrumental in getting the law passed) have an FAQ section that should answer any questions you have on this issue Check it out here.

For everything else, you’ll need to use a commercial kitchen before you start selling. I’d still recommend being insanely over-prepared before taking this step. Have everything ready: your branding,. your packaging, your consumer trials. Get people to try your product (and not just your friends, because they’ll all tell you “IT’S AMAZING!!!”)

I’m not suggesting that your product isn’t amazing, but you’ll save a lot of time and cash by getting second opinions. Forage Kitchen organizes a great venue called “Tasting Table” at BatchMade Market (each first Friday of the month), where you can drop off your food items and get consumer feedback, which is super helpful. But you can go even further. Set up a table down the street from a farmers market and offer samples. Go on Craigslist and offer free food in exchange for feedback. Email food makers you love and ask for their opinion. Come up with your own clever ideas! In my experience, food veterans love to help passionate newbies—but you need to ask. Don’t be shy! I had knots in my stomach cold calling folks when I first started (I still do!), but I can’t overstate the importance of putting yourself out there. You won’t be sorry.

Just make sure you know what you’re doing before paying for a kitchen. Money burns fast once you get to that step.

Here’s a link to the cottage food permit: https://www.acgov.org/aceh/documents/CFO_Model_Registration-Permitting_Form_12-21-2012.pdf

SELC FAQ: http://www.theselc.org/cottage_food_law_faq

Next post: Brass tacks! My business partner Matt will give a step by step layout of what permits you'll need and where to get them.

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