Baker Kelli Marks has operated in both commercial kitchens and as a home baker governed by Arkansas’ cottage food laws.

 

EATING SAFE, EATING WELL

Cottage food laws protect consumers

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Brian Chilson

In just the past few years, Arkansas has experienced a boom in the number of food producers that sell baked goods, jams, jellies, chocolate and a host of other artisanal products. It’s never been a better time for local, handmade goods in Arkansas, and it’s all thanks to a law signed in 2011 by Gov. Mike Beebe that eased restrictions on prepared foods sold at farmers markets, fairs and other events. These “cottage food” laws have helped Arkansas producers to expand their value-added offerings at area markets, but home cooks and bakers need to be aware that not every item is allowed.
  “The laws are designed to protect the consumer and the baker alike,” says Kelli Marks, who has operated her bakery, Sweet Love, as both a cottage industry and as a commercial kitchen with a storefront. “Food safety is the most important thing.” According to Kelli, the 2011 revision to Arkansas laws makes the state one of the more lenient places for home cooks to work, with nearly every restriction being a matter of common sense.

“You can’t bake with cream cheese frosting or fillings, for example,” Kelli says. “Anything that has to be refrigerated like that is off-limits.” Given the heat of the Arkansas summer, the necessity of such rules is obvious. 

Kelli sees as the lack of familiarity with rules on where and to whom a home baker can sell as one of the most troubling issues involving the cottage industry. “No wholesale to restaurants is allowed,” Kelli says. What this means is that while items produced in a home kitchen can be sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, fairs and other events, such items may not be sold to restaurants. The reason, says Kelli, comes back again to food safety. “When you go to a restaurant, you expect it to be under the control of the Health Department.”

It’s an issue that Kelli has had to deal with firsthand. Since closing her Cantrell Road bakery a few months ago, she has balanced a new job with candy subscription service Treatsie and baking gigs at places like 1836 Club, an exclusive venue in downtown Little Rock that features local star chef Donnie Ferneau. “When I do desserts for Donnie, I make them in the restaurant’s kitchen,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about me, it’s about where I am.” 

While some of the restrictions may seem unfair to some home cooks, the wide variety of items that can be sold with nothing more than proper labeling (each item must list ingredients, weight, vendor name and the fact that it is a home-prepared product) makes it very easy for anyone with a little know-how to start a business. The Arkansas Department of Health has a wealth of information about the state’s laws online, and cottage producers are also urged to check with local venues—nothing in state law forbids individual farmers markets from having stricter rules on what prepared foods are allowed. It’s all about enjoying delicious food safely, something we can all get behind.

For more information, visit the Arkansas Department of Health’s website at healthy.arkansas.gov to download the state’s Cottage Food Guide.