The Business of Being Cottage Food

For over a year, I have been selling my baked goods from my house and at local farmers markets. It’s far from easy and hardly very profitable. Sometimes I’m asked if I’m planning on setting up a storefront. All I can reply is “I wish”.

Running any small business is hard, especially when corporate brands are more recognizable and offer cheaper products. There are communities out there with large pockets of people intent on buying local. There are seemingly many more who don’t have local as a priority.

This is not a blame game. There are times when big business is necessary and convenient. There are times when these corporations do incredible good in a community, like providing jobs, donating to local charities and sponsoring local events.

At the same time, we seem to have lost the balance between supporting both large and small businesses.

I am not a trained baker. I grew up in a household where college was the answer and culinary school didn’t count. So I went to college and got through a B.S. degree in mathematics. But the recession was still in full swing, so I went back to school to get my M.S.

Graduate school is no money maker, so I started baking on the side to help with odds and ends. The hardest part was getting customers. In Mississippi, cottage food vendors can only sell from their homes and as a vendor (like at farmers markets and festivals). There are a few large farmers markets in the state, but my local vending options came up short handed. Mississippi is not a state that makes substantial amounts of money. Most families get by each month, but they don’t have the type of money to buy many farmers market priced goods.

One frustrating aspect of farmers markets is that most any business can join (as long as it’s allowed in the rules of that particular market). The market I attended included a handful of bakery vendors. One was a professional store-front that is recognizable throughout the community. Naturally, they received the most business. I did my best to compete with free samples and unique options but when you have the money to buy one local item, it’ll usually go to the brand you know.

Another vendor was someone who I did not appreciate. This person bought items from the local Sams Club, repackaged them and sold them as is. They did not claim outright that anything was homemade, but the implication was there. Again, I would attempt to sway customers my way by offering free samples. But there was not much else I could do. When one vendor has a giant cookie for $2 and another has two giant cookies for $2, you’ll probably go with the latter. I simply could not compete with their pricing.

To run a business you have to be creative, have nerves of steel and a heart that can take a beating. My best customers were not my friends, they were complete strangers who simply loved what I made. In fact, it was hurtful at first, when none of my friends showed up to buy products they said they wanted. It’s hard not to take things personally. But you have to shrug things off and keep moving.

Overall, the only way to make a small business work is if you are unwilling to do anything else. If your passion is your business, you’ll find a way to make it work. Cottage food is no different. The largest factor to consider is the shelf life of what you make. Someone selling furniture can let a piece sit for much longer than a loaf of bread. Know what your customers want and make it so well that no one else comes close.