Cottage foods are products made in private, non-commercial kitchens that do not require controls on time and temperature for safety and that adhere to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's retail food codes.
Denver, Colo., native Lauren Rhoades' products once fell into the category. She sells fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kombucha under the name Sweet & Sauer.
"I always have loved buying sauerkraut and local kombucha at farmers markets," Rhoades says. "I just thought it was a good opportunity because I love making it at home, and (I can) make a little extra money."
Under Mississippi cottage-food law, vendors may produce foods that the Mississippi State Department of Health deems "low risk from a food safety standpoint" (cereals, mixes, preserves and other items). In addition, the industry has regulations regarding labeling and distribution, including weight, volume and allergen warnings. But generally, the vendors can sell food that they make at home to the public.
Sweet & Sauer has graduated from cottage-food status to a commercial kitchen. Rhoades says that both an increase in demand and regulations prohibiting refrigerated goods such as kombucha, a drink made from fermented tea, made the change necessary.
Northshore Coffee is even sold at intermission at New Stage Theatre, and people can try a new blend for each show in the theater's season.
"We come up with a clever name for each show," Eltzroth says. For example, he did a blend called Saints and Poets for New Stage's fall production of "Our Town." The title refers to a line in the play. The decaf blend for the play was called Grover's Corner.
Business licenses, kitchen inspections and other such costly barriers to entry are, in many cases, not necessary for cottage-food producers. The trade-off, however, is that vendors are restricted in where they can sell their product; they cannot sell online or outside Mississippi. Additionally, cottage-food vendors cannot earn more than $20,000 in gross annual sales without a commercial license. Eltzroth says that Northshore is considering going commercial.
Regardless of how these vendors found their way to the farmers market, each is thankful for the community cultivated here. The market is a venue for upstart, first-time vendors to find an audience and test their products with customers face-to-face. In a state like Mississippi, where there is simply less capital to go around, the simplicity and honesty of selling cottage-food products from home can help to jumpstart small businesses such as Sweet & Sauer and Northshore in a crowded and competitive market. "I'm so happy that we have cottage food," Rhoades says. "It's a more democratic way of getting local food and keeping food cultures alive."
For more information, visit sweetandsauerjackson.com and northshorerewired.com.