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The Cottage Food Industry Finds a Home at Berkeley's Homemade Market

Plus Genny's BBQ suffers from a fire, and Sumo Grub and Guest Chef shut their doors.

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On a recent Saturday evening in Berkeley, eight vendors set up tables inside the Firehouse Art Collective's hangar-like event space to sell homemade food items, which ranged from chocolate chip cookies to jars of mustard and jam. Before January 1, such an activity would have been illegal. But thanks to the passage of the California Homemade Food Act, the Bay Area Homemade Market gives fledgling business owners the opportunity to present their products to the general public.

The one-of-a-kind Bay Area event geared strictly toward homemade (or "cottage") foods debuted on March 16, and the third market will take place at the Firehouse Art Collective (3192 Adeline St.) on Saturday, May 25, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is by donation (on a $1 to $5 sliding scale), though no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

UC Berkeley alum Alex Stone created the Homemade Market to provide a marketplace for entrepreneurs who'd started home businesses in light of the newly passed California Homemade Food Act. Under that law, home cooks who obtain the proper permits are now allowed to sell a limited quantity of approved foods (basically, foods that can be kept safely at room temperature) — up to $35,000 in gross sales for this first year.

Stone — now the proprietor of Girl Alex Productions, a maker of homemade crackers and popcorns — had long been interested in starting a home food business, but even after the new law passed she realized that there weren't many outlets for these cottage food operators to sell their products. Most grocery stores and many farmers' markets weren't yet willing to sell foods produced in home kitchens. "It's just so new, and everybody's still figuring it out," Stone said.

In the meantime, Stone posted messages on a couple of online forums for Bay Area cottage food operators: Would anyone be interested in selling at a pop-up marketplace if she set one up? They were. Stone found an open time slot at the art collective, and the rest was history.

Jake Blaine and Peter Gigante, the proprietors of Jake's Castro Kitchen — a jam company based out of Blaine's home in San Francisco's Castro district — said they'd found a few farmers' markets that were open to cottage food vendors, but these either had long waiting lists (as long as two years, in one instance) or were prohibitively expensive, especially since many cottage food operators have decided to go the home kitchen route primarily for financial reasons.

"We couldn't have started the business if we had to operate out of a commercial kitchen off the top," Gigante said, explaining that many food-business incubators charge upwards of $20 an hour — a big expense for a business that needed little equipment beyond a stovetop burner.

Sara Morajev, who sells baked goods and other sweet treats that she makes in her home in Livermore through her company Teveh, Sweet Life, likewise said that commercial kitchens just proved to be too expensive for a first-time entrepreneur. She viewed starting a cottage food operation as a good first step — a way to test the waters before she decides whether she should expand to a commercial kitchen or a brick-and-mortar space of her own.

And the Homemade Market has been useful in another way, she added. Morajev said she didn't land any big orders at the first two markets, but got a lot of new "Likes" on her company's Facebook page, as well as invaluable feedback on which of her products customers were most interested in.

Blaine and Gigante said the market was especially useful for networking, for sharing tips on which jars to buy, for example, and, perhaps in the future, for using their collective buying power to negotiate better prices on supplies.

That said, most of the products for sale at the Homemade Market are ones customers likely haven't heard of. The prices might not be significantly lower than those for the name-brand artisan food products sold at farmers' markets or high-end grocery stores, and — as with anything — the quality will vary. Why, then, should customers consider supporting these cottage food vendors?

Stone pointed out that as frequently as the term "homemade" gets bandied about, up until January of this year, state law explicitly stated that it was illegal to buy and sell food cooked in a home kitchen.

"This is a place where you can come to get truly homemade food," Stone said. For now, there really isn't any other event like it in the Bay Area.

Tidbits

Sad news out of East Oakland: Genny's BBQ (6637 Bancroft Ave.), reviewed favorably in the Express just three weeks ago, has been shut down due to a kitchen fire. On Friday, May 10, a chimney flue attached to one of the restaurant's smokers caught on fire while chef Virginia Roberson was in the kitchen cooking. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but in order to put the fire out, the fire department ended up putting a hole in the roof. ­­­As a result, Roberson said, it will take at least three weeks for the owner of the building to complete the necessary repairs. ... Berkeleyside Nosh notes that downtown Berkeley's Sumo Grub (2235 Milvia St.), known for such health-food specialties as deep-fried Oreos and deep-fried mac 'n' cheese, has closed. It has been replaced by The Mix Plus, a new restaurant featuring burgers, quesadillas, and other student-friendly fare. ... Finally, Guest Chef's (5337 College Ave., Oakland) year-and-a-half-long run of rotating pop-ups has come to an end, Zagat reports. Although the restaurant had its last official day of service on Sunday, it will host a series of "Back from the Dead" dinners while the space is on the market. Visit TheGuestChef.net for further details. 

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