USA TODAY - Paul Newman did it. Heidi Klum did it. Jimmy Dean did it. Ludacris did it.
Many people dream of taking their favorite recipes and turning their love of food into their own business.
Starting a food-oriented small business can be more than just a dream. If you want to package and sell your soup, jam, candy or grandma's salsa, you'll find many customers willing to try your new taste sensation, plenty of places such as farmers' markets to sell your product, and believe it or not, you can have low start-up costs.
Of course, health inspectors and customers want to make sure the food you're selling is absolutely safe. So you have to follow state laws, especially on where and how you prepare your goodies.
The least expensive way to start your packaged food business is to prepare goods in your own home kitchen. Until recently, many states banned the sale of any food made at home.
But as the cottage food industry became widely popular, state laws have evolved, enabling many more people to create foods for sale from their own kitchens.
Actor Paul Newman, who died in 2008, started out making bottles of salad dressing to give as Christmas gifts and went on to found Newman's Own, whose profits are donated to charity.(Photo: Newman's Own)
A dizzying array of state laws cover home-prepared specialty food products. Issues such as these:
• The types of foods you can sell.
• Ingredients you can use.
• Maximum income you can make.
• Where products can be sold.
• Whether kids or pets can be in the kitchen while you cook.
For information about laws in your state, go towww.cottagefoods.org.
As your business grows or if your state prohibits making food for sale from home, you'll need to use a commercial kitchen.
Commercial kitchens that rent out by the hour or on a short-term basis are becoming far more common, especially in larger cities. In smaller towns, you may be able to rent commercial kitchen space from restaurants, community centers and churches.
Mixed vegetables sit in jars before brine is poured over them as part of the canning process in a commercial kitchen in the Pine, Ariz., home of Ray Stephens. He and his wife have sold their jams and pickled vegetables under the "Ray'z Not Yet World Famous" label across Arizona.(Photo: Michael McNamara, The Arizona Republic)
One cutting-edge example of a new option in commercial kitchen spaces is Prep in Atlanta, set to open in January.
Prep not only will include a commercial kitchen, a gluten-free kitchen, and a meat kitchen approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but also facilities for food trucks to prepare food, get supplies such as propane and ice, and park. Prep includes a TV studio so culinary entrepreneurs can create videos to help promote their products and services.
"I found it cumbersome to go through all the aspects of launching a food business," said the company's founder, Michele Jaffe. She got her inspiration when trying to launch a granola business.
All of the laws overwhelmed her.
When she looked for a commercial kitchen, she needed to sign a contract for at least 20 hours a month, but she had no idea how many hours she needed. Prep will offer greater flexibility.
"Let them increase their hours as production increases," Jaffe said. "That way, they can determine whether they really want to do this for a living."
Using a rental kitchen offers more than compliance with state health laws. Typically, you'll have access to equipment that would be very expensive for a start-up business to purchase, such as ovens that can accommodate 25 sheet pans at a time, a blast freezer, a 30-quart mixer and walk-in coolers and freezers.
When choosing a commercial kitchen, consider factors such as these:
• Equipment. Does it have what you need?
• Storage. Dedicated or shared? Secure? Refrigerator and freezer space as well as shelf space?
• Hours of use. What hours are available? Will you need to come in the middle of the night?
• Management. Does it have supervision to reduce the likelihood of theft or misuse?
• Price. Hourly fees can be as low as $20 an hour, especially for non-peak periods or when contracting for a large number of hours.
• Minimum hours required. Reserve enough time for all preparation and cleanup; overtime charges tend to be hefty.
• Other fees. Check fees for each kind of storage and other services such as receiving goods.
• ServSafe certification. Some kitchens require all participants to have food handling safety certification, which means less likelihood of contamination.
Finally, make sure the place is sparkling clean. Your future customers will thank you.
"I didn't want to be making my granola when the person using the space before me didn't clean up properly and now my granola tastes like pickle juice," Jaffe said.
Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her most recent book is Entrepreneurship: A Real-World Approach. Register for Rhonda's free newsletter at PlanningShop.com. Twitter:@RhondaAbrams. Facebook: facebook.com/RhondaAbramsSmallBusiness.Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2013.