In 2011, artisanal bread baker Mark Stambler was getting noticed. His naturally-leavened French breads, baked fresh in a wood-fired stone oven in the backyard of his Los Angeles home, had caught the attention of The Los Angeles Times, which wanted to feature Stambler and his traditional bread in a full-page spread.
The newspaper couldn’t print the story without identifying where readers could find his loaves. He agreed to release the stores’ names — but harbored a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn’t end well.
The article ran on a Thursday, and Stambler’s fears were realized the very next day, when the Los Angeles County Health Department showed up at the shops, banning Stambler’s bread.
“They descended like a ton of bricks on the stores and made their lives miserable,” he told TODAY.com. “It shocked me and obviously shocked them. I called the Health Department to find out what I could do about it, and they said it was illegal to sell any homemade food in California.”
And so began a year-and-a-half-long crusade to change the law, with the help of state legislators and a small community of supporters. On Jan. 1, California’s cottage law bill went into effect, permitting people to cook and sell non-perishable foods from home with a license.
The Golden State joins 30 others that have deemed shelf-friendly foods like bread, cakes, pies, tea, jerky and preserves safe for commercial home production. Laws differ by state, but most require residents to buy a permit and open their kitchens for inspections, depending on how and where they plan to sell food.
Stambler’s was the first kitchen in Los Angeles to be approved — one of 55 people in that county so far, according to James Dragan of the Los Angeles Department of Health. So far, 172 people have applied.
"I hope we get to taste your bread,” Stambler said the inspectors told him on the way out.
Stambler, a nonprofit consultant by profession, hopes to one day bake his French breads exclusively, a dream that could soon become a reality thanks to his state’s recent legislation. Since the approval of his license, Stambler has started selling his bread at Silverlake Farms and other specialty shops in his area.
"Some shops have worked out really well — it's been really great," he said. "It's more work than I remembered, but I'm getting back into the routine of baking every week."
When Stambler first became involved with California’s cottage food laws, he was mostly thinking about his own loaves. That changed when he realized how many home bakers were missing out on the extra income.
“I started hearing about people all over the state that were essentially in the same position,” he said. “There are people out there who really need the extra income from being able to bake at home to support their families.”
That includes women like Mollie Brown of Cutie Pies in Los Angeles, who gave up on renting a commercial kitchen space because it wasn’t worth the roughly $25 an hour. She flew under the radar instead, until the recent law was passed.
Now she’s chasing her kids out of the kitchen and finding storage space for the large volume of pies and "pop-tarts" she sells during peak times. But despite the challenges of running a small business from a home kitchen, the new laws have opened up a world of opportunity for Brown, who hopes to start up a food truck.
“It’s going to make a big difference,” she said. “It’s definitely a game changer for many home bakers who wouldn’t have otherwise attempted to go down this road because they couldn’t afford it.”
Others like Los Angeles resident Gayle Bauer of OMG! Fudge can finally start making a decent profit. Last month she obtained a class-B permit, allowing her to sell both directly and indirectly to consumers — and put an end to the costly commercial kitchen space she used to rent out. “It’s been a godsend,” she said.
She's more focused now on expanding her business and getting her award-winning treats into stores. Her dream? To be the next Mrs. Field’s of fudge.
An “artisanal” food craze has swept across the country over the past few years, but many bakers and food sellers are still cooking and selling from home illegally so they can keep as much of their meager profits as possible. In 2012, L.A.’s Department of Health fielded about 234 complaints regarding unlicensed food production in a residence, according to Dragan.
Should you have any chance of peddling your homespun foods at an official farmer’s market, in specialty food stores or online, you’ll need a permit — or a shopkeeper willing to overlook the law.
Caron Ory, creator of Eco-BeeCo natural sweetener, is holding a class next month for potential food sellers in the Los Angeles area who are trying to make sense of the new legislation. She’s offering a 12-step guide to building your own food business and getting proper documentation.
“Everyone has a signature food item they make that’s out of this world,” she told TODAY.com. “Many people have dreamed of commercializing it, but they don’t know how to do it.”
The laws are benefiting all kinds of cooks, from farmers looking to sell a "back-up" product like preserves during the winter to “midnight bakers,” commonly mothers who schlep to commercial kitchens in the middle of night because it’s the only time they can.
Kelley Masters of Home Sweet Home bakery in Cedar Park, Tex., started baking cakes and decorating them in her kitchen in 2005. She saw a home cake business as a way to earn extra money and find some personal fulfillment.
“I thought: I’m not just a mom. I could have my own thing and be responsible for it, even if it’s just a few hundred dollars a week,” she told TODAY.com.
But Masters also wanted to obey the law. Not able to afford the hourly kitchen rent, she found a local restaurant owner willing to let her use his kitchen after hours.
“It was foul, disgusting,” she said. Grateful for their help, but unwilling to work in a contaminated kitchen, she eventually rented out a commercial space, sneaking out when her 2-year-old went to sleep so she could bake until 1 in the morning. A second baby forced Masters to quit, but she still held on to her fondant dreams.
For two years, Masters wrote letters advocating for the passage of a cottage law bill to her state representatives, and in Sept. 2011, her wish came true. Now she earns about $300 a week for her specialty cakes.
“The local food movement started gaining a foothold and people started becoming more interested in all these things,” she said.
Texas has what Masters calls a “hands-off law,” because a kitchen inspection and course in food handling is not required, though food producers still aren’t allowed to sell in farmer’s markets, a restriction she hopes to see changed. She believes many home cooks aren’t even aware the laws exist.
“I’ve seen so many people who say 'I can’t believe what I can do from home,'” she said. “It’s largely women who have children at home and need to be able to stay there.”
Even those who missed the cottage-law window support them. Nicholas and Emily Cofrancesco started I Heart Pies in Los Angeles in 2007, after Emily left her job as a television editor. When they wanted to start selling their organic pies, which include fanciful flavors like chocolate bourbon pecan and “butterbeer,” they had to rent out an expensive commercial kitchen.
“In hindsight we’re not upset,” Nicholas told TODAY.com. “I just wish we had cottage food laws at the time because we had to raise a lot of capital. I think it’s great for people coming in — they have a lot less hurdles.”