Law is icing on cake for home-based baker

Hazel Dell woman helps create state's Cottage Food Act

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter



FH Cakes

What: A home-based custom cake business offering peanut-, gluten, dairy-, tree-nut, egg- and soy-free cakes.

Owner: Felicia Hill.

Where: Hazel Dell.

Vendor booth: Vancouver Farmers Market, Sixth and Esther streets in downtown Vancouver, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Web: FH Cakes

Cottage Food Act rules

The Cottage Food Operations Law allows people to make low-risk food products in their own home kitchens and sell directly to consumers. Until this change, no food processing has been allowed to take place in home kitchens.

Products allowed for sale under the draft rule include: breads, cakes, cookies, granola, nuts, jams and jellies, and other low-risk products.

All recipes should have a cook step to prevent the spread of food-borne illness or be made from shelf-stable ingredients.

Gross sales of cottage food products may not exceed an annual amount of $15,000. If gross sales exceed the maximum annual gross sales amount, the cottage food operation must either obtain a food processing plant license or cease operations.

Cottage food operations must package and properly label for sale to the consumer any food it produces. The food may not be repackaged, sold, or used as an ingredient in other foods by a food processing plant, or sold by a food service establishment.

Cottage food businesses must comply with all applicable county and municipal laws and zoning ordinances that apply to conducting a business from one’s home residence prior to permitting as a cottage food operation, including obtaining a Master Business License.

Source: Washington State Department of Agriculture

Business prospects are a whole lot sweeter for Washington's home-based bakeries, thanks to Felicia Hill.

The Hazel Dell cake maker and stay-at-home mother of two will be honored Monday in Olympia for helping cook up a new state law that allows small, home-based bakeries like hers to operate legally. For her work last year outlining the rules behind Washington's Cottage Food Act, Hill will ceremoniously receive the first legal permit to sell low-risk foods made in the home.

The Washington state Department of Agriculture expects more than 1,000 potential small businesses across the state to apply for permits to sell baked goods, nuts, jams and jellies at farmers markets and through other direct-sales avenues. The permit is available for bakeries that generate no more than $15,000 in gross sales annually.

"They really wanted it to be a person-to-person transaction, from me, the baker, to the person who is going to eat it," said Hill, who testified before the state Legislature three times last year on the growing cottage food movement, with its hyper-local emphasis.

Hill also stuck around Olympia to hammer out stipulations of the law, pushing to raise the original $5,000 gross-sales cap to $15,000. The increase could help unemployed and underemployed Washington residents generate money to live on, one of the key purposes of the law, according to Hill.

"Ideally, an appropriate amount would be $30,000. That would give someone the ability to live comfortably," said Hill, who has vowed to push for the increase next year.

"I have had numerous people thank me and say, 'This has helped us to possibly start a business,'" she said.

Although the law was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last year, the agriculture department just started accepting permit applications this week.

Washington is among three states to recently enact a cottage food law, putting the rule in place just before South Carolina and Colorado, which both passed similar legislation this year. In all, 26 states now have cottage food laws, breaking away from traditional models of production in which food is sold to consumers who have little or no idea where it came from.

"Knowing the person who made your food is not that common anymore," said Hill.

Her business, FH Cakes, bakes and sells peanut-, gluten- and dairy-free cakes. It's a specialty she developed in 2008 after trying to order a peanut-free bakery cake for her son, Luke, now 6, who has a severe peanut allergy.

"I could not get a guaranteed safe cake," Hill said.

She decided to make the birthday cake herself, taking a few classes that uncovered her hidden talent for whimsical cake design. The artful and allergen-free cakes quickly caught on among family and friends, said Hill, who sold her cakes "under the table" for about one year.

She wanted to grow a legitimate business to supplement husband Jeff Hill's income. But Felicia Hill found it prohibitively expensive when she attempted to follow the old Washington state law mandating that bakery businesses operate from a commercial kitchen. The overhead of leasing a commercial kitchen wiped out her modest profit. It would have dipped below the bottom line with child care, which Hill did not want to consider.

"A lot of this stemmed from the fact that it was very important for me to be at home with my children and not have somebody else take care of them," she said.

So, Hill researched the cottage food industry, work that ultimately led to her support of the Cottage Food bill introduced by Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, whose daughter is an artisan baker.

Hill anticipates every state will have some type of cottage food law at some point, enabling artisan food makers to channel their energies and earn income.

"This could help get our local economy get back up and productive," Hill said.