By Katie Anderson
Nebraska News Service
More than 100 home bakers and jelly makers across Nebraska are earning money by selling cookies, coffee and other products, thanks to a law that’s been in effect for just over a year.
In May 2019, LB304 became law, which allows Nebraskans to sell baked goods from their homes. This law expanded Nebraska’s cottage food rules to allow vendors to sell their items beyond farmer’s markets. From LB304 vendors can sell items from their homes, fairs, craft shows and other public events. According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, 136 food vendors have registered with the state since the law was enacted.
While COVID-19 has disrupted some cottage food makers’ businesses, some are thriving.
“Nebraska had one of the most restrictive cottage food laws in the nation, which seemed odd to me in a state that was largely built on a pull yourself up by your bootstraps work ethic,” said Darren Addy, owner of Kearney micro-roasting business Kraken Coffee Roasters.
His focus is on providing freshly roasted, specialty-grade coffee to customers around the country from his house.
Addy’s business is still taking coffee orders online. He offers delivery services by leaving orders on the doorknob. With COVID-19 restrictions lifting, he began operating at local farmer’s markets.
“COVID-19 made us more conscious of social distancing and touchless transactions – everything from a check left under the front door mat to issuing a Square invoice so people can conveniently pay by card,” Addy said.
The law allows cottage food producers to sell their products to consumers from their households or for pickup or delivery. There is no cap on how much they can make. Cottage foods can include jams, jellies, cookies and bread.
Before cottage food producers can start they must complete a food safety and handling course. If they are using private well water, they must have it tested. In addition, there also must be a visible label on the product saying that it may contain allergens.
“Anytime we can find new ways to create sensible rules that enable entrepreneurs to get their start even if they don’t have a lot of money sitting around to start a business that’s a win for everybody in Nebraska,” said Adam Weinberg, communications and outreach director at the Platte Institute.
“LB 304 gave me the freedom to be a businesswoman without the immediate financial burden of having to rent a storefront, and for that, I am completely grateful to all who supported the bill,” said Michelle Ware, owner of Devil’s Food Cakery in Eagle.
Ware is a U.S. Air Force veteran turned sugar connoisseur. Her specialty is handcrafted customized cakes and small treats for weddings, baby showers and birthday parties.
She can now pursue vendor opportunities, meet customers, participate in farmer’s markets and charity events. She can also tailor her business to meet her needs, like working from home.
But, she said COVID-19 has created obstacles.
“Due to COVID-19, I temporarily closed and am still not operating,” Ware said.
Ellen Hanzlicek, owner of the Hen’s Basket in DuBois, faces a similar struggle.
“I shut down when COVID-19 hit. I lost out on business for several months. I wanted to go to craft shows, but they all got canceled,” Hanzlicek said.
When she isn’t running her daycare, she participates in local craft shows, selling baked goods like cinnamon rolls, kolaches, pies and cookies.
Other cottage food vendors have found ways to maintain their business.
Lisa Hammons is a stay at home mom to two boys in Columbus. Her business, Think Treats, is a home bakery specializing in decorated sugar cookies. With COVID-19, Hammons has seen an increase in orders.
“I did see an increase in orders when COVID-19 hit. I began offering DIY kits and paint your cookies. Parents like them as a fun activity for kids to do with the bonus of it being a treat,” Hammons said.
State Sen. Sue Crawford of District 45, which includes Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base, sponsored LB304. She said the proposal faced some opposition in the Legislature.
Opponents worried that cottage food producers wouldn’t be held to high safety and accountability measures. Opponents included grocery, restaurant and retail industry groups. Some of those safety and accountability measures include state registration, a food education requirement and testing of well water.
“We were able to negotiate and come to an understanding with the opposition by incorporating additional accountability and safety measures,” said Crawford, who lives in Bellevue.
At least one city has put in place added requirements for cottage food producers.
The Lincoln City Council passed an ordinance that requires cottage food operators to pay an annual $30 fee, face health inspections and make sure when food is being prepared non-toilet-trained children and pets are out of the kitchen. The measure was proposed by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
Cindy Harper, the owner of Creative Confections in Lincoln, has 20 years of baking experience and sells her baked goods at farmer’s markets. With the help of the Institute for Justice, Harper is suing the city of Lincoln over the restrictions, which were passed in February. The Institute for Justice is a national law firm that aims to protect individual liberties.
“How can you tell me that a state law signed by the governor does not apply in this county? I am concerned about whether or not I can make my stuff,” Harper said.
Harper filed the lawsuit in May and is seeking an injunction.
City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the city has a job to adopt stringent regulations involving food safety especially during a pandemic.
“COVID-19 illustrates the importance of following good public health procedures,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick emphasized the importance of preventing food borne illnesses and says the new regulations further protect people.
Crawford, the senator who sponsored the cottage food bill, said she continues to hear positive feedback.
Addy, the Kearney coffee roaster, said his business is growing and keeps him busy. Even during busy times, he attends farmer’s markets to meet his loyal customers.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of true coffee lovers, especially in the Kearney area,” Addy said. “And once they get a taste of what just-roasted, specialty-grade coffee tastes like, most don’t want to go back to commodity-grade coffee at the grocery store.”