Selling homemade treats isn’t quite so easy as setting up a bake sale on your patio or posting your homemade treats on Facebook marketplace. There are rules and regulations, also known as cottage food laws, that need to be followed in order to sell safely and legally.
The first thing you need to know is that you do not always need to get a license to sell food in Maine. Municipalities that have enacted food sovereignty laws allow you to sell homemade goods from the point of production directly to consumers without a license.
If you want to sell beyond your front porch or don’t live in a municipality that has enacted such laws, though, here are the steps you need to take to start selling your homemade goods.
Step 1: Apply for a license
To sell your homemade food product, the first step is to fill out an application with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry (DACF).
There are two primary licenses for cottage food producers: home food processor licenses for foods with a low risk of developing harmful bacteria, such as baked goods without frostings or fillings, fruit jams and jellies, spice rubs and candy; and commercial licenses for “potentially hazardous” foods like canned, fermented and dehydrated foods.
The application requires a fee depending on the license — $20 for home food processors, and $50 for commercial.
As part of the application, you will have to send in your recipe with standardized weight measurements (for example, you will need to convert tablespoons to grams), temperatures and times to ensure batch-to-batch consistency.
Beth Calder, extension food science specialist and associate professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that while classes are not required to apply for these licenses in Maine, producers may benefit from classes at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, like a recipe-to-market class or a food safety class.
Step 2: Prepare (or find) your kitchen
If you qualify to sell from your home kitchen, the DACF will set up an inspection of your home kitchen within 30 days.
“A lot of people feel a little nervous,” Calder said. “It’s really more about developing a relationship with your inspector. They also help provide food safety education as they’re providing an inspection.”
Even for home kitchens, though, there are certain requirements in order to pass inspection.
“We want to make sure you have hot running water,” said Celeste Poulin, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine DACF. “You have to have cleanable surfaces. It can’t be porous. We don’t want to see wooden countertops. You need a two-bay sink.”
Jason Bolton, associate professor with the Cooperative Extension, said you might want some training before that time comes.
“Sanitation should be their primary concern, especially food contact surfaces,” Bolton said. “They should look for home kitchen licensing training to get more details.”
Products that require a commercial license, on the other hand, need to be made in a commercial kitchen. Producers can rent space in any of the certified commercial kitchens around the state.
“[Choosing a commercial kitchen] really is a matter of preference and convenience,” Poulin said. “Some have more bells and whistles than others [for an] additional fee.”
If your neighbor has a commercial kitchen for products that they sell, you can also use that, but you will still need your own separate license. You can also make a commercial kitchen in your home.
“It would be a totally separate kitchen meeting commercial regulations,” said Michelle Newbegin, supervisor of the Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine DACF. “[It can be] a basement, garage [or] spare bedroom, as long as it meets commercial kitchen regulations.”
Setting up a commercial kitchen in your house could be a substantial investment, though.
“You’re looking at a more sophisticated degree of plumbing,” Poulin said. “If you have to have pipes laid from scratch, that’s going to be pricey.”
Step 3: Test your product (if you need to)
Some food products — namely, “potentially hazardous” ones like canned foods and dairy-based frostings — will require testing by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Food Testing Services.
“We have a nice online system where they can keep track of where the product is in the pipeline,” Calder said. “[It’s a] 4 to 6 week turnaround time [and you] get a letter and test results back.”
Calder said to mail your product in the final container you plan to sell them in (and also recommended packing them tightly with plenty of bubble wrap so they do not jostle during shipping).
“I prefer to see it in glass with a metal cap, nice hermetic seal on the container,” Calder said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative and try plastic pouches and stuff, but sometimes we refer clients to Cornell [University] for consultation [and testing] for products [in other types of containers].”
For dairy-based frostings and creams in baked goods, she said to send along about a fourth of a cup in plastic containers along with the recipe to make sure it is being prepared safely.
Step 4: Make a label
All cottage food products need a label that includes the name of the product, its net weight or count, a list of its ingredients in descending order by weight, your name and address as well as any of the eight major food allergens in or in contact with the food product.
If you are selling goods cooked in your kitchen, it may be in your benefit to mention anything that passes through your kitchen that is one of the major allergens. This is less of a concern for commercial kitchens and all the potential allergens that may pass through there.
“You are responsible for washing and sanitizing every surface before you use it,” Newbegin said. “You have to use it when there’s nobody else there, so you’re not responsible for listing what [the producers before you] use.”
You also want to be sure your label is clear.
“The last thing anybody wants is for anybody to buy their product to have some horrendous anaphylactic reaction and then to come back and say you didn’t label it clearly,” Poulin said.
Don’t worry about counting calories, though — most small food producers are not required to have nutrition labels, unless you gross more than $500,000 annual sales. As you grow, you may have to file a small business nutrition labeling exemption notice with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but that starts once you start selling more than 10,000 units and employing more than 10 full-time employees yearly.
Step 5: Keep records
It is important to keep records about the various batches or lots of your homemade food product, no matter what you are selling.
“Traceability is huge for food safety,” Poulin said. “Let’s say you’re a baker. Normally, you buy one brand of flour, but one week you couldn’t use your usual brand and then come to find out that there’s a recall on that flour. You need to be able to recall all those cookies that you baked with that flour.”
“That way, in the event of a recall, you can recall a certain lot as opposed to every chocolate chip cookie out there,” Newbegin added
In general, Poulin said that Maine is a fairly friendly place to start your own cottage food business.
“People who are saying they can’t jump through all the hoops have probably never applied,” Poulin said. “I would hate to think that there is anybody out there who is thinking of starting a business that would be afraid to call.”