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Look What's Cooking in the Kitchen... Stories of Marin's Cottage Food Operations

Christin Anderson & Helen Ferlino canning in her home kitchen.
Christin Anderson & Helen Ferlino canning in her home kitchen.
Since its launch in January, the California Cottage Food Act, AB1616, has enabled 12 small businesses in Marin County to open their doors.  The original intention of the act was to create jobs across the state of California and the stories from these food system entrepreneurs are an indication that this intention is being fulfilled.

Christin couldn’t be more delighted with the opportunity to take advantage of the Cottage Food Act – it came at a perfect time for her.  Christin Anderson of Christin’s Farmhouse Pastries taught nutrition through cooking classes at UCSF for 20 years.  With the recent loss of the program’s endowment, Christin found herself living in Lagunitas and looking for her next endeavor.  Baking was the one thing she could think of – where she could earn an income while still having the time to do what she loves: connecting with her community and the beauty of West Marin.  

She had a wonderful experience working with the county on permitting her kitchen, and has a glowing review of the process.  With over 1,000 hours of cooking instruction, Christin knows her way around the kitchen.  Her assessment of the test for the Food Handlers License, required for certification, was that it is very well done and completely essential for anyone wanting to prepare food for public consumption.  She was also very impressed with her personal kitchen inspection, “The Marin County staff gave me the white glove treatment,” checking the water source to her sink, the temperatures in her fridge, the functionality of her oven, and the state of her storage pantry.  She feels that the whole certification process is very legitimate.  

She now bakes organic pastries and desserts for a half-day about twice a week, and does deliveries after that.  Her new business provides her with supplemental income, a lot of fun, and as a bonus, she has created an opportunity to support local farmers.  She sources all of her fruit locally.  She is also looking for locally grown and milled grains for her galettes.  Christin's dream for her business is to be commissioned to make all of the desserts for a large, on-farm, food event.

Paola Elias making Bel Hannah Cookies.
Paola Elias making Bel Hannah Cookies.
Paola Elias of Bel Hannah Cookies is another inspired Cottage Food Operator.  Paola has been on the hunt for the perfect business to start. With her kids, now aged 18 and 14, she wanted to find a way to spend her time being productive, “I can’t just be sitting around all day!” She was ready to start a new chapter.

Paola has always loved cooking for her family and with a combination of Lebanese and Italian cooking traditions – she is a master in her own kitchen.  She considered becoming a caterer or a personal chef.  Being a person who likes to think big and pencil out all of her ideas, she ultimately concluded that not only would it be difficult to scale up a cooking or catering business, she may begin to grow tired of cooking.  She did not want to get to the point where she wouldn’t want to cook food at home for her family anymore. This was a compromise she was unwilling to accept.  That is where the idea for Bel Hannah Cookies was born.  

Lebanese cookies are a cultural delicacy.  Every family has their own recipe and typically only make traditional cookies once a year.  With giddiness in her voice, Paola confesses that her family’s recipe is so good that they make them many times a year.  She has even made them for school fundraisers where they are always a huge hit.  Cookies, she thought, would be a perfect starting place.  

While she is still in the early stages of her production – she has been developing the concept for over five months – dialing in her financial numbers and assessments, coming up with her system in her kitchen, and when she was finally ready, getting her permit (which only took about three weeks).  Aside from her well laid plans, the other contributor to her ease in her permitting process was the friendly and supportive staff at Marin County Health and Human Services.  Paola could not have been more pleased with the process and the law in general.  Her feeling is that not only does it help someone with cooking as their skill set, it creates an opportunity for people to eat real food that comes out of someone’s home, the best kind of food there is.  

Paola is shooting high: she would love for Bel Hannah Cookies to be a recognized name.  “Dream big, shoot for the highest, then where I land will be good enough.”  She is very encouraged by all of the other Cottage Food Operations, with a sense of camaraderie she expressed, “I wish all of them success, tell them I wish them the best!”
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Other food entrepreneurs have additional reasons for motivation.  Michal Hansen of Sugar on Tap, was simply drawn to the creativity she could express through cake making.  It is her favorite art medium.  She has been operating out of a commercial kitchen with a commercial license since 2009, earning around $10/hour for her efforts.  Now that she can operate out of her home, cake making has been elevated from “hobby” to “side job.”  Although, she admits, her favorite form of payment is creating a cake that is “too pretty to cut.”

Pamela Henry of Sausalito Sweets also enjoys making art through food.  She was motivated to become a Cottage Food Operation simply because she was new to the area.  She wanted to give her fledgling business a jump start, by starting small and avoiding the expense of a retail shop.  

Both Pamela and Michal were pleasantly surprised at the ease of understanding the permitting process and qualifications.  Steve Rosso and his staff at the Marin County Health Department have been busy!  Aside from handling the new applications for Cottage Food Operations, he manages permits for Farmer’s Markets, Temporary Food Facilities & Mobile Food Facilities; food borne illness complaints & outbreak investigations; food safety and specialty permitting in retail food establishments and bed & breakfast permitting, to name a few additional responsibilities.

Steve and his team have spent quite a lot of time and effort on the Cottage Food Law, a non-funded State program, in an effort to make the process as smooth and painless as possible.  There is a Frequently Asked Questions page on their website that offers inquirers a great overview of the program as well as a slew of other helpful links, including the application packet and information on the required Food Operator Training

Steve would like to see the list of low risk foods evolve to include more scientifically proven low risk foods, such as olive oil and to exclude other potentially risky foods that are already on the list. The biggest challenge for his office has been the labeling requirements, as it is new territory for Public Health Departments.  Labeling is typically reviewed by State and Federal Agencies.  

With the permitting process getting smoother, our Marin food system is quickly moving to a neighbor near you – maybe right into your own kitchen!

Current Tips from Marin's Cottage Food Operators for Getting Started:

Before Applying:

Once you are a CFO (Cottage Food Operation):

  • Always try new recipes and have new things for your repeat customers to try.  If you don’t have something that is unique to you then you won’t have people coming back. Repeat business is essential.  Keep a competitive edge on recipes, your product not only has to look good, but has to TASTE GOOD.
  • Connect with your local community and start small.  As referrals grow and your system gets more efficient, it is easier to take on larger and more regular accounts.  Word of mouth is really important for a home based cottage kitchen.
  • Having a presence on Facebook and a website is helpful.
  • Donations are a great way to advertise.  Making donations to non-profits, events, or gift certificates for silent auctions are all great ways to get your name out virtually for free.
  • For someone who wants to ramp up quickly: get into farmers markets.  
  • Don’t get into food entrepreneurship as a means to make quick money, it doesn't happen that way.  To do this business, you really have to love what you do.

Current List of Marin County’s Cottage Food Operations:

By Paige Phinney