Breads, whoopie pies, donuts and pickles: How Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act has produced a batch of entrepreneurs

Amy Wulbecker doesn’t put eggs or milk in her whoopie pies per Colorado law, but she can do her baking when it suits her — and for the mother of four small children, that means late into the night while her Severance household sleeps. 

David Kaminer’s old job kept him cooped up in a kitchen 70 hours per week. Now he bakes his majorly popular sourdough bread twice a week in a brick cottage in his north Denver yard, and his customers roll up to buy it. The extra time in his life goes to his wife and 3-year-old son. 

And Shannon Lovelace-White, who wasn’t living her best life as a higher education administrator, whipped up a batch of vegan donuts in sustainable packaging this year that would transform her days.

The three bakers operate under Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act, which allows people to sell goods made in their own kitchens — no license or inspection required — as long as they are “non-potentially hazardous” and do not require refrigeration. Baked goods with cream cheese and custard are not allowed. Meat is not an approved ingredient, so no bacon bits in the bread. And salsa and canned vegetables or fruits that could spoil are not allowed, either. 

The rules have forced bakers to modify their recipes (one long-time pie maker notified disappointed customers this holiday season that instead of pumpkin pie, she would sell do-it-yourself pumpkin pie kits, complete with crust, roasted pumpkin and spices. She had already given up her famous gallettes, because of the fruit filling.)

But the act has opened up opportunities for hundreds of chefs and bakers across the state, providing them a path to quit their day jobs or earn money while raising families. The act, originally passed by the state legislature in 2012 and updated in 2016, lets cottage food producers earn up to $10,000 per year, per product — so that’s $10,000 per type of bread or flavor of donut. Income taxes apply. 

The Cottage Foods Act does not require people to register, so the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment doesn’t know exactly how many cottage food producers are operating. But several hundred people have completed a food-safety course through Colorado State University Extension offered specifically for cottage food producers. 

More than 700 people took the class in 2018 and another 700 took it this year, said Brianne Rael at the state health department. A survey found the most common cottage products are baked goods, honey, jams and jellies, and spices. 

About 50 cottage food producers each year send their products to the state health department lab for free testing. Most often, these are pickles, or speciality spreads that contain tomatoes, said Jeff Lawrence, director of the department’s environmental health and sustainability division. The key test is the product’s pH and whether it’s in the safe zone of below 4.6. The less acidic a product, the easier it is for certain bacteria to grow, including the bacteria that cause botulism. 

The health department has not received any complaints linking cottage foods products to illness, which would trigger an inspection of their home kitchen, Lawrence said. Cottage food producers are occasionally inspected when health department inspectors stroll through farmers’ markets, however. 

Squeaky Little Wheel Bakery sells donut kits that come in lemon poppyseed, German chocolate and other flavors. Cottage food producers can earn up to $10,000 per year, per flavor or type of product. (Photo provided by Squeaky Little Wheel Bakery)

Lawrence said he realizes many folks, despite the changes in Colorado law in recent years, are likely still selling homemade products from their kitchens without following the act. This means they are not adhering to the banned ingredients list or labeling their products as cottage foods, as required.

He urged them to reconsider. “You are walking on the edges,” Lawrence said. “There isn’t a financial burden for them to follow the law. We want you to have a strong understanding of food-safety principles.” 

The Cottage Foods Act offers people cover in a litigious society, he said, noting producers can tell customers their food is lab-tested, that they’ve taken a food-safety course and that the food is properly labeled. Lawrence also recommends limited liability insurance. 

Wulbecker, who has four kids ages 6 and under, is using an old family recipe from the Pennsylvania Amish. She took the food-safety course in Larimer County and began selling her whoopie pies at farmers’ markets in 2017. 

Yoder Roots Baking is based in Wulbecker’s home kitchen and deals mostly in special orders delivered across Northern Colorado and shipped throughout the state. Customers want the pies — which are a cross between a cake and a cookie, or like a giant Oreo with frosting in the center — to eat at home, but also for weddings and birthday parties. 

The Cottage Food Act doesn’t allow Wulbecker to deal in weddings and parties, so large orders go directly to customers and she purposely doesn’t ask for details. Her flavors — chocolate, s’mores, chocolate-mint, chocolate-peanut butter, chocolate-raspberry, red velvet and orange creamsicle — sell for $13 per half-dozen. 

During the two weeks before Christmas, Wulbecker made 500 pies, and almost all from 8 p.m. to midnight. 

A packaged-for-sale, vanilla whoopie pie from Yoder Roots Baking, a cottage food producer in Severance, in Weld County. The whoopie pies are made from a family Amish recipe. (Photo provided by Yoder Roots Baking)

She keeps a cooler in her vehicle to keep the pies cold as she delivers around Weld County and beyond, and Wulbecker modified the Amish recipe to replace the milk and eggs with water. She also found a substitute, cottage-food-safe recipe, for the cream cheese filling that sits between two red velvet cakes.

Wulbecker controls the workflow; when she’s ready for a rush of orders, she puts her new “flavor of the month” on Instagram or posts a photo of her whoopie pies. 

“I work from home — I love that about the cottage foods industry,” she said. 

But here’s one problem with a cottage foods business; Wulbecker and her family are planning to move to South Carolina, and although she plans to keep baking, Wulbecker won’t be allowed under the law to ship her pies back to Colorado.

Kaminer named his bread operation Raleigh Street Bakery after the street where he lives near Regis University in Denver. A short walk through his back gate leads to his bakery, a cottage that once was an apartment. 

His pizza oven can bake 25 loaves at once, which comes in handy as Kaminer often produces 400 per week. All of his breads are made from sourdough, and he mills much of his own flour. Some are made from heirloom grains, including einkorn (the original wheat) and Turkey Red wheat. Each week brings at least five kinds of bread: French baguettes, pretzel rolls, cranberry-pumpkin seed, seeded whole wheat, etc. 

Kaminer found out about the Cottage Foods Act a few years ago after working at Udi’s bakery and then a second bakery, where he was putting in 70 hours each week and “had a poor life balance,” he said. “I thought the Cottage Foods Law could provide me more personal time.” 

He started selling bread at farmers’ markets and has evolved to an ordering system that lets customers fill out their requests in a shared Google document. They can pick up bread on Raleigh Street on Fridays or at Call to Arms Brewing Company on Mondays. 

“I’ve found ways to be present with my family,” Kaminer said. “In my past jobs, I’d be really sad to miss so much. Cottage foods has given me a chance to be a really good father.” 

David Kaminer started Raleigh Street Bakery in his home after working long hours in a commercial bakery. His customers order via Google doc and pick up the loaves at his home or a local brewery. (Photo provided by Raleigh Street Bakery)

His only complaint about the act is its inconsistency and vague wording, which can make it difficult for producers to understand the rules. Kaminer once was threatened with immediate shutdown at a farmers’ market because he was showcasing his loaves in the open air under a sneeze guard, instead of individually prepackaged in plastic. He had been selling them that way for years and had not known it wasn’t allowed, he said.

Lovelace-White grew fed up with the waste in the commercial bakery where she worked — the single-use plastic gloves, the piping bags for frosting and plastic bread bags.

“From day one, I was shocked at the amount of waste that was happening on the back end of the kitchen,” said Lovelace-White, who had left her job in higher education to pursue her love of baking. “Seeing it every day was getting a little much for me.”

Then there was the food waste, so many uneaten loaves and donuts, and nonprofits that turned away offers of leftover products.

Squeaky Little Wheel Bakery sells donut kits that come in lemon poppyseed, German chocolate and other flavors. The new business has a farmers’ market following and a growing list of regular customers. (Photo provided by Squeaky Little Wheel Bakery)

So Lovelace-White got to work on a donut kit that people could easily assembly in their own kitchens. The step-by-step kit makes the “reasonable amount” of six donuts, and in compostable packaging. It’s a dry mix, and vegan, so it easily complies with cottage food requirements. The customer adds oil, water, butter or vegan butter. 

The cake donuts, which are baked in an oven, come in lemon poppyseed, German chocolate cake, chocolate with coconut sprinkles, and other flavors. 

“Everybody is obsessed with donuts,” Lovelace-White said. The question in her mind when she launched the Squeaky Little Wheel Bakery was: “Everybody loves donuts, but does everybody want to make their own donuts?”

Turns out, lots of people do. Lovelace-White, who started selling the donut kits in June, has regular monthly customers and a farmers’ market following. She also delivers homemade donuts in the metro area.

She is grateful that Colorado’s act allows cottage food producers to sell online, but wishes they could sell to restaurants and retailers. She also wishes producers were required to register with the state to ensure they are receiving up-to-date safety information. 

“I’m very cautious,” Lovelace-White said. “But because the cottage foods laws are slightly ambiguous, that worries me about other people who might not be as by the book. I would hate for one bad apple to spoil the cart.”

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