The New Cottage Food Economy
Home chefs go pro
Last October, Tiffany Abuan’s employer, San Francisco public radio station KQED, threw a chili cookoff that she was determined to win. But the twentysomething gift-planning associate and single mom wasn’t confident of her chili-making abilities, so she focused on cornbread, creating a few flavored butters like chile-garlic as accompaniment. The butters were a surprise hit, prompting several co-workers to inquire if they could buy some. Abuan was taken aback. “I was just going to give them some for free,” she says.
What happened next is a food-nerd version of Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain. A few weeks after the cookoff, Abuan was invited to sell her butters at a party at a Mission District bar where small-time food vendors peddled their wares alongside custom bicycle lug fabricators.
Since the chili cookoff, Abuan had gotten more serious, making her butter from scratch, naming it Mmm, Butter!, and creating a website. At the bar, the butters caught the attention of a young man about to open his first restaurant. When the restaurant, Fat Angel, opened in February, Mmm, Butter! was featured as part of a “butter flight” alongside warm country bread.
It used to be that small food producers like Abuan were limited in their distribution schemes to farmers’ markets if they had a license, or their social circle if they didn’t. Or, if they were serious and lucky, the shelves of a boutique market or grocer. But as the number of people making smoked pear Kombucha and maple-bacon mini cupcakes has exploded, so too have their retail opportunities. From quasi-legal food markets in unlikely places to Twittering food carts and beyond, the concept of how and where food is bought and sold is being dramatically redefined.
LOWERING THE BARRIER TO ENTRY
At the Greenpoint Food Market in the basement of a church in Brooklyn, $20 buys you six feet of folding table on a Saturday. The market’s founder, an amateur baker named Joann Kim, started it as an alternative to the Brooklyn Flea down the street, popular among artsy types for its food vendors, vintage clothing, and furniture dealers. “Some of my vendors just sell granola bars wrapped in saran wrap or foil and that’s about as far as they want to go,” says Kim.
Starting a small packaged-foods company isn’t easy. Many grocers and markets prefer to work with distribution companies to keep their invoicing systems simple, and distribution companies require a certain level of output so they can sell to multiple parties. At the bare minimum, you must be legal. Whole Foods, for instance, works with local producers but requires that its vendors operate out of a commercial kitchen (which the company independently verifies) and that they have a business license and liability insurance.
Foodzie, an online store selling independently produced food products, will help vendors get a license and secure commercial kitchen space. And there are some small food business “incubators,” like San Francisco’s La Cocina, that do the same. But commercial kitchens in a major city typically rent for at least $75 an hour, and a business license runs about $100.
By contrast, independent markets like Greenpoint offer hobbyists a launch pad with few—or, in most cases, no—requirements.
“Maybe after they test the waters and expose their product to a new audience they could go the next step,” says Kim. “We’re a market that caters to amateur home cooks.”
Photographs by Galen Krumel